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