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‘Man, Idea, Image’: An understanding of masculinity

In the wake of black male fetishization, the condemnation of male homoeroticism and the strictures of the societal explanation of masculinity, “Man, Idea, Image: Photographs of Men from the Mark Rice Collection” tries to reclaim the art within male portraiture, specifically in the time period during the HIV/AIDS epidemic and following the Stonewall Rebellion, both of which proved to be tumultuous periods for the concept of masculinity.

The collection challenges viewers to rethink conventional ideas of masculinity and allows men to be displayed in both erotic and deeply emotional states, displaying the body as if male nudity was as common in art exhibits as Monet’s paintings. The “man,” as referenced in the collection’s title, is both gentle and forceful, erotic and intimate, thoughtful and guarded, his multifaceted nature playing out in the preconceived notions set before him, about him.

Western culture primarily has one set idea of masculinity: a strong-minded, able-bodied, capable, heterosexual man who does not demonstrate a particularly wide range of expression. This collection showcases men who fit this stereotype and men who do not, placing them together in an effort to imply coexistence and normalcy; men are more than the image the Western stereotype of maleness that masculinity paints for them.

The images of the collection are broken down into six sections, each tackling a different aspect of the idea of masculinity, ranging from ‘The Allegorical and Metaphorical of the Body’ to ‘Intimacy, Seduction, and Erections.’ Perhaps the most thought-provoking section of the exhibit is ‘The Black & Beautiful Body,’ which asks the viewer to redefine the black male body as beautiful art, without losing the historical and cultural contexts of race and fetishization.

The time period during which these pictures were collected cannot be ignored either. Pre-Stonewall, “coming out” was not generally accepted or normalized, but after Stonewall, coming out became a political act and a declaration of the voice of people on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. As such, posing for these pictures was a political act, a call to be seen completely — both physically and emotionally — as a member of society.

Additionally, gay men living with HIV or AIDS during the late 90s were often further marginalized because of their disease, a disease often associated with drug addicts and those who engaged in immoral (read: homosexual) activities. The Mark Rice collection takes care to explore this isolation and desperation as many of the photographers who took pictures for the collection were personal affected by HIV/AIDS.

Most art galleries do not celebrate the male form and rarely go so far as to dedicate an entire exhibit to an examination of masculinity over the decades most affected by its redefinition. “Man, Idea, Image” is unique in that it provides a perspective not often seen in visual artwork — that of the complex emotional nature of man, in relation to race, sexuality and temperament.

“Man, Idea, Image” can be viewed in the AOK Library Gallery during normal business hours until Dec 12. Dr. James Smalls, the curator of the exhibit and a professor of Visual Arts at UMBC, will be giving a lecture entitled ‘The Mark Rice Collection and the Homoerotics of Photography after Stonewall’ on Dec 7 starting at 4 p.m.