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Terence Dick
Maskull Lasserre at Arsenale Contemporary
July 12, 2018

Masculinity in visual art is cool as long as the artist is critiquing it, but what happens when a male artist uses traditionally masculine tropes in his work? How much ambiguity or criticality is needed to merit a pass? When Matthew Barney gets dismissed as “bro” art, isn’t the appropriate response: “Well, duh.”? All of his work is conscientiously engaged with representations of maleness in the process of being dismantled and/or celebrated through exaggeration and dissection. What is it to refer to something as “bro” art other than to dismiss it as endemic of a kind of male supremacy that leans toward the tiresome edge of offensive? It’s not sexist per se, but it perpetuates an exclusive fraternity that maintains itself as and through a bastion of culturally determined “male” qualities, characteristics, and contexts in an age where feminism is (hopefully) a given.

This isn’t a prelude to a men’s rights plea for a little respect and airtime despite the last couple millennia of hogging the spotlight so much as a prolegomenon to an as yet unwritten inquiry into what cis-gendered dude artists are to do when they want to make art about being dudes. Which, according to the directives of the day, is what they’re supposed to do. So the real question is: when they do do it, what are we supposed to make of it?

Maskull Lasserre, Truth of Fiction, 2017, twig, steel, paint

Which brings us to Maskull Lasserre’s exhibition at Arsenale’s Toronto branch. How does one negotiate the implications of gender in this selection of large (as in heavy) sculptures and assorted drawings? The overall dynamic at work is the undercutting of strength or power or, dare I say, virility by combining it with fragility. A small bird makes a huge dent in a steel door. A suspended log weakens in the middle like a fraying rope. Delicate musical instruments are made from hammers and anvils. And a backhoe claw crumples under the tension of a spider’s web. Each of these objects presents a binary inversion that refutes the assumptions of the dominant material by forcing it to act otherwise. At the same time, it’s hard not to see the tree trunks, tools, and phallically-pronged anvils as references to masculinity.

When Cassils hammers away at a surface and emphasizes the hardness of a body pushed to its limits, the artist’s transmasculine identity makes this action new and intriguing. When Lasserre drops a boulder onto a metal piano or hangs a massive piece of wood in the gallery, his effort inevitably resonates through the tradition of creative machismo that has long been endemic in art world boy’s clubs. He risks being a cliché. And yet, the defining force he dramatizes with each sculpture is not the standard model of stereotypical male power, but the underdog in each confrontation. It’s a familiar twist on expectations that prods the viewer to rethink their assumptions. A tree branch barely thicker than a twig makes its impression on yet another anvil as if the metal is as soft as skin.

Maskull Lasserre, Study of cord progression, 2017, ash tree trunk, chain hoist, gantry

As the despotic villain Thulsa Doom in the 1982 movie Conan the Barbarian, James Earl Jones presents the Riddle of Steel to a not-so-clever Arnold Schwarzenegger. The answer: “Steel isn’t strong. Flesh is stronger.” This enlightening reversal of bodies and matter is manifest poetically in Lasserre’s sculptures and literally in his drawings of anatomy morphing with material objects. Here the artist takes another page from the post-human aesthetics of Barney and his ilk. However, his works are second-order metaphors built on existing objects (tools, musical instruments) that evoke associations with other existing objects (actual bodies). The result is a clinical distance that appears authoritative but leaves one cold. At the risk of even more essentializing, perhaps this is what makes it masculine.

Maskull Lasserre: Immovable Objects, Unstoppable Force continues until October 6.
Arsenale Contemporary:
The gallery is accessible.

Terence Dick is a freelance writer living in Toronto. His art criticism has appeared in Canadian Art, BorderCrossings, Prefix Photo, Camera Austria, Fuse, Mix, C Magazine, Azure, and The Globe and Mail. He is the editor of Akimblog. You can follow his quickie reviews and art news announcements on Twitter @TerenceDick.



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