David Grenier and Retro Masculinity

CRITICS CHOICE: Roberta Best writes about Circuit Gallery artist David Grenier‘s Petalhead series and retro masculinity.

David Grenier, Petalhead Portrait 18: circa 1952

David Grenier, Petalhead Portrait 18: circa 1952, 2007

David Grenier and Retro Masculinity
by Robert Best

I wear a vintage wristwatch that I inherited from my grandfather, a lovely man whose loose interpretation of masculinity strongly imprinted and affected my own gender development and identification. It’s a men’s timepiece of another age: elegant, understated and ‘masculine’ without the need for a series of unnecessary bells and whistles to proclaim a testosterone-driven life spent conquering aeronautics and the deep, dark sea.

A similar chord of gentle-manliness is struck in David Grenier’s “Petalheads” portrait series. I have to say, I crushed out a little with the men in these pictures the first time I came across them. These smartly-dressed fellows of earlier eras, whose facelessness belies a beauty all the same, prompted me to think about the ways in which some of my favourite topics—gender, memory, portraiture, sartorial splendor—all converge contemporaneously within the frame of these works.

David Grenier, Petalhead Portrait 17: circa 1944

David Grenier, Petalhead Portrait 17: circa 1944, 2007

Traditional portraiture is meant to affix a certain image of a person to a specific time and place. It is a genre often defined by the visage, the ‘mask’ that the subject wants to portray to the world, or alternately, the way in which the artist wants us (the viewer) to see the sitter. Grenier’s replacement of the sitters head with a flower undermines this convention, of course, as it would if he had used any object, but the specific use of a motif generally thought of as ‘natural’ and ‘beautiful’, gently tilts the viewer’s gaze towards his male subjects ensconced in a world that is both earthy and elegant. I would resist the urge to suggest that in removing the corporeal heads of his subjects, Grenier invites the viewer to extend their gaze to an actual implantation (pun intended) of their own self-image upon the sitter, except, well, I certainly did that with these pictures, finding myself strongly identifying with these nameless, faceless “Petalhead” figures.

The “look” of the sitter then, lies primarily in the pose, and specifically, in his clothes and accoutrements. At first I noticed the details: the watch fob in Circa 1939, the pocket poof in Circa 1944, the scarf in Circa 1984; even the greyhound, draped like a muffler around the neck of Circa 1977, all these little details which evoke their era, or at least the idea of it, in subtle, sartorial ways. I use the word ‘evoke’ here intentionally. Most contemporary uses of the term “retro” are often so heavy-handed—either in a tongue in cheek “I’m so cool I can wear these ugly leg warmers” kind of way, or with a waxy nostalgia for a glorified era that may, or may not, have even existed—that it’s hard to see beyond the uber-irony.

David Grenier, Petalhead Portrait 23: circa 1984

David Grenier, Petalhead Portrait 23: circa 1984, 2007

David Grenier, Petalhead Portrait 21: circa 1632

David Grenier, Petalhead Portrait 21: circa 1632, 2007

“Petalhead Portraits” takes a much more nuanced glance back at earlier times, and in particular, at types of masculinities which have since been incorporated into current styles and modes of being, contributing to an evolution of gender and sexuality. The materials in these works—ink with watercolours—combine specificity with softness, at once creating a certain image and then opening it up to interpretation. I suppose at first superficial glance the “types” of men in these portraits are indeed just that: preppy, dandy, businessman, etc., but the stereotypes they portray and clothes that represent them, and which originated in another era: the sweater vest (1952), the glen check jacket (1939), the military shirt (1984) are now all items worn by any manner of stylish gent or gent-identified gal on any given day (okay, perhaps not the shirtless Elizabethan collar worn by Circa 1632, except at Pride…) and in any and all manner of sexual stripe.

Who are these men? What are they thinking? Why are they there? With the traditional recognizable trait of portraiture, the face, removed and replaced with, essentially, a metaphor, these questions remain unanswered, and the portraits venture beyond the immediacy of the moment. Although dated then, as in most traditional portraits, these pictures are, I must assume, specifically titled “circa” their particular date, to denote an approximation of time. These portraits are not a reproduction of someone, but rather a reminiscence of an idea, the idea of a certain kind of ‘man’, and the era that produced him, though he clearly continues to walk among us still in contemporary variations. The dandy (gay) now shakes hands with the metrosexual (hetero), the boy with the boi. And like my grandfather, they are all, without regard to time and date, “my kind of guys”.

See more work by David Grenier:

David Grenier, Petalhead 7: Attack No. 2

David Grenier, Petalhead 7: Attack No. 2, 2007

David Grenier, Petalhead 15: Black Dawn

David Grenier, Petalhead 15: Black Dawn, 2007

David Grenier, Petalhead 11: Homicidal Hummingbird Maneouvre No. 2

David Grenier, Petalhead 11: Homicidal Hummingbird Maneouvre No. 2, 2007

Circuit Gallery Presents Bill Finger: Distant Smoke

Bill Finger, After Psycho

Bill Finger, After Psycho from the series Gravity Wins, 2006


Circuit Gallery Presents Bill Finger: Distant Smoke

Toronto, ON – November 15, 2010Circuit Gallery is pleased to present Distant Smoke, a solo exhibition of eleven large scale photographs by Seattle artist Bill Finger. This will be his first solo exhibition in Toronto.

Creating images that explore both television crime drama and the photographer as “unreliable narrator,” Bill Finger’s photographs elaborately play with both fiction and reality. Within each image Finger evokes and entwines memories of specific places from his childhood with those of the Hollywood movie sets he has worked on during a 20 year career as a motion picture Assistant Cameraman.

Each photograph in the exhibition began with a handcrafted miniature diorama that Finger painstakingly constructed for the point of view of the camera. Pulling back slightly with the camera, on certain images, he further exposes the illusion while allowing the viewer a glimpse off the set. With the edges exposed, Finger adds an emphasis to the constructed nature of photography. Where most photographs make a claim to represent the truth, Finger’s images do just the opposite, each one an elaborate fiction.

Without the physical presence of people or actors within his miniature sets of tenement bay windows, hospital rooms and derelict fields, he is still able to create a feeling of tension and foreboding that something has either just happened or is about to occur. It could be an approaching storm, the loss of something valuable or perhaps something much more sinister.

Bill Finger received his MFA in Photography from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 2005. His work has been exhibited across the United States and Canada and is included in the permanent collection of the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography. Bill’s images have been published in the books Light & Lens and Exploring Color as well as the European magazine Fotograf.

Bill Finger: Distant Smoke

November 23 – December 5, 2010

Opening Reception: Wednesday, November 24, 7:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m.

Department Gallery
1389 Dundas St. West, Toronto M6J 1Y4
[ Google Map ]

Gallery Hours:
Tuesday through Friday, 2:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday 1:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m.

Bill Finger, Watch

Bill Finger, Watch from the series Gravity Wins, 2009

Bill Finger

Bill Finger, 1969 - Age 8 from the series Paramnesia, 2004

Bill Finger

Bill Finger, Forest Set from the series Gravity Wins, 2006

Please visit Circuit Gallery online to see and learn more about this work.

About Circuit Gallery

Circuit Gallery is the shared vision and collaborative product of Susana Reisman and Claire Sykes. The gallery specializes in high-end editions of works by emerging and established contemporary artists with an emphasis on photographic, digital and print-based works on paper.

For more information, visit www.circuitgallery.com or follow the daily conversation at www.twitter.com/circuitgallery.


For more information, contact:
Claire Sykes, Partner, Circuit Gallery
Tel: 647-477-2487
E-mail: claire@circuitgallery.com