“I grew up between the US and UK, and the frontier mentality of the American dream was always bittersweet – both embroiled by the fantasy of freedom and rugged individualism, it felt in great opposition to the rolling hills of pastoral England. In the vast deserts of the American West the illusion of freedom, the trope of masculinity reigns high. And in this an opportunity to desire and imagine other ways of being, of presenting gender and identity.”
The colour blue – specifically blue denim – holds connotations of melancholy and softness; blue is imbued with feelings of mourning and transformability. In Nick Doyle’s exhibition Gentle Giants, these undertones are related to masculinity and gender in society. What unifies these works is denim – a material deeply entrenched within American manliness, from the wild west denim of cowboys of the West, to work wear since its invention in the 1840s as a “working class” staple. But it also can become something else: Andy Warhol was championed for his queerness and repurposing denim from workwear to fashion – Levi’s the bearer of men’s sexuality. In its current iteration, it arguably transcends gender, class, and race – it is unified by its homogeneity but also versatility. As Charlie Porter writes, “Denim is a fabric of commonality.”
But, why denim? In Gentle Giants, Doyle creates collage structure from denim which confront americana and recognisable iconography. He collects images from everyday life in America and travelling, as with the large corn in Corn Bred from Kentucky State fair, which presents regional pride as found pop art. Each object here is a gesture of americana, from coke cans to waffles. Within each object is a feeling of our super-realist experiences, the recognisable images we have come to understand as America, but also the uncanny fantasy of freedom they have attached to them.
Doyle’s subjectivity, and that of the men he meets, are threads which consistently remerge. In Stay Gold Pony Boy riding gloves have a pink horse hanging from them, reconfiguring the “pony boy” as the pain and joy of becoming something other, the riding of a horse as an elegant act. Similarly, the jukebox in Love Stallion perhaps presents notions of the stallion, of embracing an alternative queer space through the euphoria of music. It is in these small interactions, portraits, and identifications that masculinity is reconfigured through that of others, and the illusion of manhood and its dominant culture is underdone.
Humour’s ability to orient the viewer also overrides difficulties: an oversized nut, a bozo clown in Hit Me Harder renders the myths of masculinity as a “joke”, and are symbolic of rejecting the hyper masculine, toxic world in which we find ourselves in. Similarly, the acorn seen in A Beautiful Nut is an oversized “beautiful nut”, and the juke box has “bally’ written on the bottom. Similarly, industrialisation also finds its roots in the blue-collar worker, and the use of plug sockets in Power Wash, inadvertently referring to histories of labour and craft as a means of generating corporate capital. And yet, they are slightly comical.
Nostalgia for alternative societal structures of gender, the absence of whitewashed americana, and rejected narratives of masculinity underpin all these works. Transcending the precision of each material cut is an enduring sense of gentleness, a softer approach to masculinity and its associated discontents. The pillow with a peacock feather in Lay To Rest decompresses a sense of hyper-masculine by reinstating a feeling of putting the performance of gender to bed, of laying things to rest.
Look beyond these everyday objects, because Doyle reminds us that these are the gentle giants of hegemonic masculinity, lingering beneath the dominant narrative of virility in America.
- Hatty Nestor