More than Skin Deep
Cigarettes and guns trace the enigmas of masculinity
Thu, Jun 19, 2008 (midnight)
Thomas Lee Bakofsky
In case you haven’t been paying attention, it’s cooking up to be a stellar summer for art in Vegas. The list of solid shows that are open or about to open around town keeps getting longer. Add to that list Thomas Lee Bakofsky’s “What It Is,” on view through June 27 at Trifecta Gallery.
Tucked away inside the Arts Factory, Trifecta offers a consistent stream of small treasures, meant to entice you into taking them home posthaste. The space, specializing in design and illustration-influenced two-dimensional work, often playfully negotiates its small size with bold colors and petite paintings. Imagine my surprise, then, to discover upon entering the gallery … a pile of oversized cigarette butts tumbling from a corner. In an exhibition dominated by paintings, this solitary three-dimensional element is divergently successful. Cigarette butts are a recurring theme throughout the show, and the smart and funny inclusion of the giant papier-mâché forms was an unexpected pleasure. One of the best pieces in the exhibition, it manages in one fell swoop to heighten curiosity and incite a giggle.
All cigarettes and guns, the show is a smoker’s dream (or an anti-smoker, depending on how you look at it) and brims with dominantly male-associated imagery. “A**hole,” arguably the best painting, is an acrylic on paper rendering of the profanity spelled out in cigarette butts floating on a turquoise plane. But the work also includes several sly references to gender dynamics. Two potted plants, “His” and “Hers” respectively, are also covered with butts. Why the cigarettes? Masculinity—what it is, how it is identified, how it is misrepresented—appears to be a source of contemplation for the artist. By using the butts as primary imagery, Bakofsky was “interested in the idea of equal but different, as represented by a common object.” The artist sees cigarettes as masculine in nature, that which destroys or deteriorates, as opposed to something femininely fertile and productive. The butts themselves are delineated, and the “feminine” ones are defined by how they are not “masculine.” Some have brown tips (Marlboro or Camels?), while others are mediated by the feminine, with white tips and a hint of lipstick (menthols or Capris?). The two are kept separate throughout the work; the haphazard papier-mâché cascade is the only place where the two intermingle. So what about the girl who smokes mediums and hates lipstick?
But this isn’t about the girls; it’s about the boys, and the title of the painting “M.A.C.H.O.” says it all. A standout, the piece consists of five individual paintings spelling out the word, with each letter featured separately. The block text is actually painted flesh, with small hair follicles attached to skin surfaces. Although it sounds gruesome, the work is actually quite funny and almost sweet, playing by turns on notions of “thick-skinned” and “skin-deep.”
The exploration of masculinity is only one point of departure in the work. The imagery and construction are very much influenced by the artist’s youth and connection to the West Texas border town experience and proximity to Mexico. Bakofsky is also an illustrator, a fact obvious in the visual clarity and concisely stylized directness of the paintings. Quite flat, the use of acrylic on paper gives the feel of old posters or labels. The artist makes the nice compositional choice of puzzling together pieces of paper, which emphasizes specific areas while simultaneously giving the overall look of a sign remade or repaired. And each painting has a lovely turquoise background, a particular color of the sky that we in the Southwest know only too well.
The exhibition is playful, well made, and doesn’t pull any punches. Bakofsky certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but then again he is not really trying to. While the work neatly falls into a popular vernacular that straddles high art and illustration, that realm is a terrific one for probing bigger themes, and there is real potential for Bakofsky to try his hand at more political probing. The investigation of masculinity and the border town/immigrant experience is incredibly interesting, relevant, and topical; but it seems as though the artist is only scratching the surface with this body of work. “What It Is” is pleasing, fun, and smart; I hope that in time there might be a little more meat to the macho.