Transitions in art . . . from page 1
These broad questions are made digestible because they’re addressed through the experiences of a unique character, Eric. The audience is brought on a striking journey as they learn about Eric, who has recently left behind his life as Erica. His story is compelling not because he is transgender but because everyone shares more common ground with Eric than they might initially believe.
Played by Teresa Sanderson, Eric takes the stage as a speaker for an event titled “Living Trans.” As Eric relates anecdotes from his life — some humorous, like when he finds out his new girlfriend is a gynecologist, others heart wrenching, like the story of his son’s rejection — the theatrical audience is transformed into his conference audience, a strategy that engages the viewers in what is a series of personal disclosures. Through an elegant bit of stage design by Jerry Rapier, also the Producing Director, Eric is behind a podium when he shares the stories he has prepared, but moves off the platform, away from the protection of the podium, and closer to the audience when he is sharing a raw piece of his life that he seems surprised to reveal.
As the play opens, Eric nervously begins his presentation when he realizes that nobody has the handout to accompany his talk. He proceeds to give everyone in the audience a list titled “LIVING TRANS: An Intellectual Defense of Trans Experience,” to which he refers throughout the play. This format could have come across as preachy or confessional, but Eric’s struggles are so relatable it begins to feel as though he’s confiding in close friends.
Eric tells the audience about his constant uncertainty. As someone who recently transitioned from being female to male, he is still feeling out masculine behaviors that seem right. This is no easy task, because like point three on his list says, “Any specific meaning of ‘masculine’ comes from culture or our individual minds.” Eric is often weighing himself against the most traditionally masculine person in the room, and sometimes finds himself lacking. This issue of self-confidence is universal and can be understood by anyone who has ever compared himself or herself unfavorably to another person. In one particularly moving scene, we learn it’s this lack of self-confidence that led to Eric’s marriage. When he was still Erica, she met Joe at church. Joe is intelligent, athletic, and good-looking. They ultimately tie the knot because of an accidental pregnancy, but more importantly because of how Erica feels about Joe — she wants to be him.
After Eric transitions, he falls in love with Addie, but he’s terrified to disclose his past. It’s unquestionably human to feel vulnerable in love and to be frightened about divulging personal, intimate details that could harm the foundation of a budding relationship. Eric worries about what so many of us do: being loved for who we are, maintaining honesty in a relationship, and satisfying the needs of those we love. His story is often less about being part of the transgender community, and more about the human condition.
Bennett never answers his initial question, “What does it mean to be a man?” Instead, he implies that masculinity is too complex an issue to be given a simple definition. It manifests itself differently in individuals. As points seven and eight on Eric’s handout explain, “Regardless of biology, we can have greater preference for expressing ‘masculinity’ over ‘femininity.’ What we prefer is a property of psychology, swayed and often restricted by cultural ideas.”
Local visual artist Julian Sagers, who has seen the play and is himself trans, notes that, “Not everybody identifies gender the same way, and one is not better than the other.” It’s an issue that he explores through his own artwork, which will be on display as part of Artists of Utah’s 35 x 35 exhibit. Sagers’ “Female-bodied,” is a self-portrait of the artist in a non-descript setting. In jeans, topless, throwing back a beer, the figure’s stance and posture have a masculine swagger; soft breasts are the only indication that Sagers is not biologically male. His work could be described the same way he described Eric(a), “raw.”
Speaking to Sagers, it becomes evident that art has always been a part of who he is. In junior high and high school he literally took all of the art classes that were offered and then repeated some. He’s been drawing for much of his life and nobody in his family was surprised when he decided to study art in college. “I’ve never wanted to do anything else, I’ve been drawing forever,” he says. “My grandmother has a still life in her house that I made when I was four.” One of the reasons he pursues art with such vigor is it allows him to view the world from a different perspective in the sense that artists are always trying to communicate a way of seeing what’s beyond the surface of something.
Artwork by Sagers intentionally conveys a sense of melancholy. Just as Eric’s experience left him estranged from one of his children, Sagers too has experienced loss. “I think being trans is extremely isolating. You’re generating less options for yourself,” he says, noting that it would be easier to meet a partner, make close friends, and find physical safety if he conformed to the traditional female identity. “Me being myself and being happy is worth it, but it’s a catch 22,” he says. This sense of isolation and loss can be seen in “False Advertising,” another self-portrait, where he sits alone with his arms and legs crossed protectively over his body.
But Sagers is quite opposite from Eric and his vulnerability isn’t readily apparent. The young, twenty-something is about to graduate from the University of Utah with a BFA in printmaking and his personality is bold, honest, and brash. When he encountered a male classmate that refused to refer to Sagers as “he,” Sagers response was to turn it around and begin calling his classmate “she.” Before the end of the semester, his classmate began using the pronouns Sagers prefers.
After college Sagers plans to take a few years off and build his portfolio, then apply to graduate school. He’s thinking of going to Japan to teach English, but whatever he does, he will be creating art. He wants to work on a way to communicate through his art that isn’t as subtle as his current pieces, and he may experiment with letterpress and bookmaking. The combination of images and text may help convey his intentions with more clarity.
At the end of the day, everyone wants to be embraced for who they are. Eric laments having had to wear dresses as Erica, and trying to be the girl that others wanted to see. Sager’s frustration with society’s rigid gender roles is evident in “A Clever Deception Indeed,” a print portraying a wolf in sheep’s clothing. “We put on these facades to be in a particular group whether or not we actually belong,” he says. Through Eric(a), Plan-B Theatre hopes to start a dialogue about understanding the multifaceted nature of gender, so people can disrobe from their costumes and be comfortable in their own skin. Sagers hopes to accomplish something similar and uses his work to confront rigid gender roles and make people aware that biological sex does not determine gender.
Humor in art . . . from page 1
A good place to start is with “Rejected.” Isolated in a photographic close-up (the way we see most artworks), Alex Foster’s carved maple figure looks like a conventional—if technically nostalgic—sculpture, a well-modeled human figure lying face down on the ground.|1| The title seems to say it all: in truth, aren’t we all still children inside, wishing we could fall on our faces in a rigid tantrum when we feel we have been measured and have come up short? But in the gallery, we eventually see past the defeated figure to the pedestal from which he fell. The universal reading is still valid, but shot through by one more specific, and far more painful: not the shortcoming of who we cannot help being, but rather the failure of what we strive to become.|2| Foster reveals the hidden comedy of body language, whether expressing a loss of self-esteem in “Worthless,” or in the abstract “Belonging,”|3| contrasting the complacent relaxation of the in-crowd with the striving posture of the outsider.
The question of body language also brings to mind Trishelle Jeffery’s significant arrangements of almost passive figures. One timeless insight into humor, which resurfaced in the current explanation: “It’s funny . . . because it’s true,” gets a fresh presentation in Jeffery’s prints, comics, and artist’s books, which initially appear as anything but funny pictures. One may ponder the clues in “I’m Going To Miss You So Much,” a print depicting a life-sized couple hugging each other good-bye.|4| If he is speaking, why do we see him from behind, other than to showcase her look over his shoulder? Is she already moving on, ironically advertising her availability to us, even as he is only beginning to feel the loss? Here the joke, if there is one, is on us: Jeffery is a memoirist, her subject her own life. Her art calculates the distance between what she hopes for and what life actually delivers, whether measured literally, in the nine-frame comic “Expectations,”|5| or encoded in the nine frames of “Spaces,”|6| each an overhead view of an individual failing to fill a distinct pictorial space. The accumulating evidence is like the buildup of a joke, the punchline coming with the realization that each space is meant for two. Her jokes have always been the quiet kind we tell ourselves, no less meaningful for their mirthlessness.
Humor has an unstable connection to expectation. Sometimes we see the joke coming, and anticipation makes the response more convulsive. At other times, complete surprise is everything. Chad Crane catches viewers off guard in narrative collages that have a fairytale quality. Part of the delight comes from dream-like situations and comedic outcomes—little girl humiliates monster,|7| school teacher forms alliance with unsocialized beast|8|—but an even more playful quality arises from the choice of materials included in the mix. Artistic renderings that elevate everything from pajamas to fish, including a woodcut Loch Ness Monster,|9| are undermined by the unexpected appearance of photographic protagonists. Historically, mixing the ‘real’ and the representational was pioneered only recently, by Picasso and Braque as part of their cubist insurrection, and human brains apparently have yet to evolve a response.
Worth keeping in mind here is that the eyes possess their own portal to consciousness: we no more need to cognitively understand something to laugh at it than we need to understand why it moves us to pity, admiration, spirituality, or rapture. Ryan Perkins demonstrates this in his Westish animations. It’s not necessary to know what’s slopping from the truncated cone that replaces the head of the slouching figure who steadies it with one of four arms as he lopes along—or anything else about this antic image. Even without seeing the original, the description “Siamese twin cowboys racing on built-in wheels, holding cigarettes and leaving behind a plume from the smokestacks that emerge from their necks” promises a smile. And while I’m curious about the boy in the mask, walking across the desert with a yo-yo, I suspect an explanation could only lessen the impact.
Everyday visual humor commonly dispenses with artistic merit; the funny picture is rarely balanced, refined, or in good taste. Tess Cook, whose statement speaks of “food-based puns” and “my attempt to create a food that entices and repels at the same time,” is clearly an exception. These crab cakes,|10| hybrids of actual desserts and disturbingly authentic-looking crustaceans, appear to borrow the thick, confectionary paint and strong colors of Wayne Theibaud, whose Mormon background led to his 70-year retrospective making a stop in Springville in 2008, where his interest in visually bold presentation, geometric outlines, and strong shadows—all characteristics of advertising imagery—may have come to Cook’s attention. So might Thiebaud’s justification of his populist (but not Pop) approach: “If we don’t have a sense of humor,” he told an interviewer at that time, “we lack a sense of perspective.” As hinted above, that may be the best justification, if one is needed, for humor in today’s art. Abraham Lincoln said, “If I did not laugh, I should cry.” As things go from bad to worse, perhaps laughter is the only option remaining.