The Thug’s Penetrating Stare

Irish artist examines masculinity, objectification of Derry men trapped by violence

Brutish, badly behaved, and unrepentant, skinheads have for decades provoked both thrills and chills among gay men. Artistic exploration of white, working class masculinity provides ready evidence. From the paintings of Attila Richard Lukacs to the flicks of Bruce LaBruce, homoerotic images of skinheads have gotten exposure in galleries and on indie film screens. These artistic expressions, however, are just representations of the attraction out there in the community.

On the street and in gay bars, there is a more direct index of what’s happening. The British cultural critic Kobena Mercer was so concerned by the widespread adoption by gay white men in London of the “skin style” that he authored an essay “Skin Head Sex Thing: Racial Difference and the Homoerotic Imaginary.” Mercer thought it problematic that imagery associated with racist and anti-gay violence would also be a turn on for gay men. In his book “Gay Skins: Class, Masculinity and Queer Appropriation,” journalist Murray Healy posits an explanation for the gay attraction, arguing that the “hateful fascist” image attached to skinheads is exaggerated, thus increasing its sexual appeal.

The exhibition “Non-Specific Threat,” at Alexander and Bonin Gallery, weighs in significantly on skinhead imagery though its subject is not homoerotic fantasy, but sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

The artist, Willie Doherty, who is straight, gives us six large-scale photographs and a video installation featuring the same nameless, shorn bloke who barely acknowledges the camera as it captures him looking pensive or menacing as he stands before the same gritty, graffiti-scarred walls. The centerpiece of every shot is this man’s sinewy, shaved head. The photographs have titles like “Intolerable Devotion” and “Indifferent Cruelty.”

These are color photographs, but the lack of sunlight in the setting, which appears to be an alley, coupled with the man’s dark clothing, sometimes make it difficult to discern facial and other details. Those that do stand out are starkly ordinary: faded seams on a jean jacket, the glint of a silver chain, and brooding eyes under dark black eyebrows.

“He exists as a type,” reads the artist’s statement, “whose purpose and whose social and economic status we are invited to speculate about.”

Doherty is a well-known contemporary artist from one of Northern Ireland’s most embattled cities, Derry, or Londonderry, if you’re a Loyalist, the scene of 1972’s Bloody Sunday massacre and countless other atrocities. Doherty creates work that focuses on perpetrators of violence and terror––not who they actually are, but how they are perceived once in front of a lens. Much of this art addresses “how the media have historically represented and continue to define the terrorist” and how they “create a character who is beyond reason, outside of civilized society, who becomes known to us as a fusion of real and fictional figures.”

I must say that I had my own brush, so to speak, with skinhead fetishism. It was in the context of a romantic affair. Sam was from Northern Ireland, in fact. Early in our relationship, without consciously intending to, we adopted bits of the skinhead aesthetic. We shaved our heads alike. We wore navy blue pea coats, and black army boots (though mine, admittedly, were more Kenneth Cole than Doc Marten). We were the farthest things from violent shit disturbers. We were simply feeding off each other with the sartorial aspect having as much power as any other vector.

Doherty’s video installation lends to the solitary skinhead whatever subjectivity the still photographs might have robbed from him. Again, the subject stands motionless, this time in a deserted warehouse. The camera circles him and we hear a voice-over in which he threatens, confronts and informs the viewer. “I am your invention,” the voice says. “You manipulate me. I am the reflection of all your fears. We control each other.”

The monologist reports that there’s a future approaching in which “there will be no books. There will be no music,”– a world, in essence, free of media manipulation. In this world, Doherty suggests, the subject of his work will cease to be a “type” and become a human being.

Good art like this makes you think in many directions. It evokes strong feelings about a particular person or event, even if the intention of the artist has nothing whatsoever to do with your own imaginings.

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