Stuart Mead at Speed Boat Gallery
St. Paul, Minnesota 1992/93
Review By Vince Leo
published in: Art Forum, January 1993
One of the most Inforable paintings in this exhibition depicts a vaudeville strip show from the perspective of someone standing backstage right: you see the stripper from behind, and by gazing past her you can look at the audience as well. In the foreground there's a clown with a big smile on his face trying to introduce a goofy note into what he understands is a complicated but undeniably male exercise in sexual power. His face recalls faces seen in rush hour traffic, at panel discussions, on TV: a face that's been caught looking but doesn't want to stop, that mirrors a soul lost somewhere between desire and guilt, that transforms shame into comic gesture before registering tragic self-denial.
For years, Stuart Mead has used the vaudeville stage as a metaphor for the structure of male visual pleasure. Like most of Mead's dramatic templates (public-bath scenes, circus scenes, scenes of men pissing through semistiff dicks), the vaudeville show combines the factual and the fantastic, twisting everyday visual reality into a philosophical discussion of what it means to find sexual pleasure in looking. Mead is exploring what it feels like to be a man whose desire and conscience don't match, who knows that the exercise of power results in a lot of embarrassment, shame, and confusion. He's more concerned with how the male gaze affects men than with how it affects women: with telling men that their search for visual pleasure comes back to haunt them.
Recently, Mead began a series of public-bath scenes in which men flex huge biceps and show off big dicks in angry circle-jerks while women parade by in swimsuits and loll together in pools. Even though he strips hetero-spectacle down to its lowest sexual common denominator, Mead complicates his scenarios with innocence and romantic love figured by preadolescent girls and a color scheme that's less realistic than prismatic. Contradictory and elusive, these paintings are eyewitness accounts of sexual selves acting out-metaphysical depositions from the everyday empire of the senses.