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Exploring Constructions of Masculinity

Geoffrey Chadsey’s haunting portraits on view at Stone Gallery

On every wall of BU’s Faye G., Jo, and James Stone Gallery hang nearly life-size, full-frontal drawings of male subjects that are by turns menacing, creepy, and undeniably unforgettable. Gazing at them may make you feel as though you’ve just entered some kind of feverish dreamscape or delirium. Many have faces with eyes and mouths replaced by monster-like features and fang-like teeth. Numerous figures have both male and female genitalia. Others have two heads, different skins, or multiple legs and arms.

The drawings are the work of Brooklyn-based artist Geoffrey Chadsey, who says he wants “viewers to be haunted by these bodies.” The show, titled Geoffrey Chadsey: Heroes and Secondaries, is on view at the gallery through December 10.

What to make of these troubling figures? The artist says his work displays “a disquieting/shifting embodiment of self.” The characters may be rendered with the precision of an anatomy textbook illustrator or plastic surgeon (Chadsey is a superb figurative artist), but these are figures in flux, bodies in the process of morphing from one thing to another, suggesting a fluid gender identity. It’s a show that explores ideas of masculinity and effeminacy and is at once provocative and disturbing.

Reacher, 2014-2017, watercolor pencil and crayon on Mylar (left). Cut-Off, 2014, watercolor pencil and crayon on Mylar (right).

“I think my drawings pursue the indeterminacy of a delicate masculinity, a presentation of self,” he says. “These characters have yet to settle into a self they are striving to embody. There is a flutter of moving limbs, a state of undress that is about being in-between.”

“I think he’s always kind of playing with that boundary between identifying oneself: are you male? are you female? are you transgender?” says show curator Lynne Cooney (GRS’10,’16), BU Art Galleries artistic director.

Chadsey uses photographs for inspiration. He first started looking intensely at photos in magazines, photo books, advertising and fashion spreads, and movies as an adolescent, when he became aware that he was gay. “Photographs were the raw material for a fantasy life when I couldn’t manage to act on my desires in the real world,” he says. “Drawing well was being able to re-create convincingly the world as seen in photographs.” As an undergraduate at Harvard, where he majored in visual and environmental studies, Chadsey started manipulating images in the darkroom—drawn on negatives, photo collages, painted on prints. He then enrolled in the California College of the Arts, where he earned an MFA in photography.

“I cannot take a good photograph to save my life,” Chadsey says, “not even with my iPhone. I have a large collection of other people’s photos.” It’s a surprising admission from someone who works by day as a photo editor at Time Inc. In his spare time, he collects photographic images—jpegs from Google and Facebook, photos from gay hookup sites like Grindr and Tinder, J.Crew lookbooks, and more—for what he calls his “nonconsensual archive,” images that might serve later as inspiration for his art. What started out as “scraps and snaps” in a box now exists as a series of folders on his desktop, a never-ending source of ideas.

The artist (second from left) and guests at the opening reception for Geoffrey Chadsey: Heroes and Secondaries at the Faye G., Jo, and James Stone Gallery on October 19

The artist (second from left) and guests at the opening reception for Geoffrey Chadsey: Heroes and Secondaries at the Faye G., Jo, and James Stone Gallery on October 19.

“I tend to save the ones where the performance of manhood is wobbly, a little off,” the artist  says, explaining what he looks for in photos. He has described his collection as “Google meets family album meets family search engine.” As for the photos he takes off social media sites, he’s drawn to the ones “that display an awkwardness or vulnerability or the ones that have a gesture that haunts me—for example, the way a hand is held—or it can just be a great face.”

Chadsey’s drawings are composites of many photos, which he manipulates in Photoshop. Working with watercolor pencil and crayon on Mylar, he sets about recombining images, adding details and erasing others, he says, “until I approach whatever image is haunting me in my head.” The work is painstaking—one drawing can take up to a year to complete. He usually begins with a face or a gesture and from there he starts adding on. “I spend so much time on them that they feel imbued with personhood.” he told one interviewer. “Frankenstein’s monster, but without the creator’s god-complex or nature-challenging hubris.”

Grunt with Tulle, 2010–2017, watercolor pencil and crayon on Mylar

Grunt with Tulle, 2010–2017, watercolor pencil and crayon on Mylar.

He prefers working in Mylar because of its flexibility. “Mylar allows me to wet the marks, dissolve the pigment, and move it around. When it dries, I can erase and work back into the surface, and it won’t buckle.”

“Geoff works on a drawing for a very long period of time and it changes quite a bit from its original conception to its final form, and so the practice of editing, changing, revising, erasing, adding is inherent to his process of making and drawing,” Cooney says.

In fact, several of the drawings in the show, like Grunt with Tulle, 2010–2017, are works that he returned to after completing them as far back as seven years ago. “That’s a great thing about an archive of old work—if it’s still around, it’s fair game to come back under the proverbial knife,” Chadsey says.

“I spend a lot of time rendering,” he acknowledges. “The bodies are physical, but what they are in the end vibrates with indeterminacy. Like a lot of artists, I try and approach the uncanny, rendering a figure that will stick with the viewer like it sticks with me.”

Geoffrey Chadsey: Heroes and Secondaries is on view at the Faye G., Jo, and James Stone Gallery, 855 Commonwealth Ave., through Sunday, December 10. The gallery is open Tuesday through Friday from noon to 5 p.m. and Thursdays until 8 p.m. The exhibition is free and open to the public.

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John O'Rourke, Editor of BU Today at Boston University
John O’Rourke

John O’Rourke can be reached at orourkej@bu.edu.

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