The S/S 21 menswear shows have come to a close, and the world is rousing from an emotionally trying lockdown. As such, conversations surrounding masculinity and mental health have peaked, posing the question: what does masculinity look like today?
The varying definitions of the softboi–from the creatively driven man who wears his heart on his (Carhartt chore jacket) sleeve to the fuckboi who has figured out emotional manipulation–have been explored in the Masculinities exhibition at the Barbican, which has reopened recently. Indeed, the exhibition text explains that it ‘charts the often complex and sometimes contradictory representations of masculinities, and how they have developed and evolved over time,' particularly ‘ideas of toxic and fragile masculinity permeating today’s society.'
Masculinities: Liberation through Photography features works such as the Sam Contis series, Deep Springs, from 2018, which explores the mythology surrounding the cowboy in the American Midwest. The stereotypically tough and rugged figure is shown in intimate moments of camaraderie, rest, self-reflection and pain. Similarly, Bas Jan Ader’s 1971 performance piece I’m Too Sad To Tell You, filmed the artist silently crying which, as the accompanying text explains, 'questions the stability of masculinity, while simultaneously debunking the reductive concept that "boys don’t cry" and exploring more emotionally expressive ways of being manly.' Interestingly, whether on purpose or by coincidence, this film reflected onto an image shot by Catherine Opie circa 2007, as part of her High School Football photo series. Shoulder-padded and helmeted young American football players stand on the pitch with their backs turned, as though collectively watching the film, which floats like a projection in their sky.
The Barbican's Masculinities exhibition has been a popular success; an exploration of masculinity, particularly in relation to vulnerability and emotional transparency, is something that is being taken up by contemporary creatives in their work.
Marcus Nelson is an artist and the co-founder of Boys Don't Cry Collective, an art collective seeking to bring men’s mental health into popular discourse. What originally began as a one-off exhibition, held when Nelson and his co-founder Brooke Wilson were studying at Central Saint Martins, has now flourished into a permanent collective of around 30 artists from across the UK, indicating that this need for emotional dialogue is widespread and not limited to the London art bubble. Nelson describes the collective as ‘a group of guys that discuss and interrogate their own sense of masculinity’, but most importantly, it’s ‘a support network’. An ethos of community, companionship and friendship certainly comes through in the way that Nelson warmly describes the collective, with men supporting one another both creatively and emotionally as they face their own personal battles with mental health. ‘Neither [myself or Brooke Wilson] are mental health professionals, but what Boys Don't Cry can continue to be is a platform where there can be a very open and multifaceted discussion around masculinity,' he explains.
The artists involved in the collective explore the contemporary male experience. Corbin Shaw investigates football fan culture and the way in which a ‘hard lad’ act is performed in front of family and peers. Through his work, Shaw seeks to raise awareness of outmoded ways in which some men still feel they are expected to communicate their emotions. One piece from the series is a St George’s flag, emblazoned with the words ‘Soften Up Hard Lad’.
Encouragingly, Boys Don't Cry Collective is now one of numerous creative projects seeking to explore masculinity today, particularly in relation to vulnerability. Manchester-based photographer Louis Bever, for instance, recently began shooting a series which delves into the way in which men deal with their emotions. This follows on from a 2017 photo-series and short documentary project, in conjunction with BasementApproved, seeking to raise awareness of the stigmas surrounding men's mental health.
Bever's new ongoing series captures poignantly intimate portraits of men in their own familiar environments. Alongside having their photograph taken, they are also interviewed on the topic of mental health. Capturing a variety of people from diverse backgrounds, from friends to strangers, and students to public figures, Bever is out to demonstrate that issues surrounding mental health can touch anybody’s life. Joseph Gilgun, an English actor known for his role as Woody in This Is England, and PAQ presenter Danny Lomas, are amongst those to feature in the series. The portraits will eventually go into a zine, with the profits donated to the mental health charities 42nd Street, in Manchester, and Mind.
Interestingly, Bever has received an enormous amount of interest to be involved with the project, but when it comes down to it, has discovered a general sense of apprehension from the men he interviews, noting that: ‘I've [shot and interviewed] about 25 guys now over the last three months, and none of them want to talk about [mental health] really.'
Nevertheless, there is a clear sense of intimacy to the portraits that comes from the close-up framing of the faces, with eyes gazing directly into the camera and towards the unknown viewer. Bever says, 'I think the pictures are quite honest, in the sense that they document the guys at their most vulnerable, and when you get that close to someone, you get to know that person, in a way.'
Particularly for those who suffer from various forms of body dysmorphia or low self-esteem, the camera can feel like a very real threat, especially when the photo is in somebody else’s hands without the option to tweak or filter. In a social media-saturated world, when pictures are given value through likes and are exposed to the comments of strangers, there is a bravery in allowing the face to be captured by the camera and subsequently reproduced.
Making emotionally transparent masculine art provides an alternative to typical ways of thinking about how men should be. Nelson explains that Boys Don't Cry are 'trying to challenge traditional representations of manhood and all this toxic bullshit.' He touches upon pack mentality as something to dissolve, or even turn to their advantage: ‘People always want to act how everyone else is acting, but it just needs someone to step out of that and go, “You know what, I don't want to allow that,” or “Actually, this is how I feel." It takes a lot of balls, but when you do, I think people would be amazed at the response. It’s like a domino effect.' Clearly being part of an art collective making vulnerable work empowers each of the participating artists: each solo voice, put together, makes a choir. He adds, ‘I'm sensing a bit of a change in the world but time will tell.'
Nelson maintains that the process of producing art is just as important as art itself. Indeed, the collective works twofold; to visually encourage the viewer to engage with the discourse surrounding men’s mental health, and as an emotional outlet for the artists, which can subsequently motivate others to take to artistic expression themselves. ‘There's something about making work physically that is so positive for your mental health. I'm such a big proponent of creativity as a form of mental release,’ he says. ‘It gives people a purpose. It gives people a thing that takes them out of themselves and lets them process what's going on in a less direct way, because I think it's sometimes very hard for guys to sit down and talk openly about what they're feeling. When guys use images to communicate, it makes it a lot easier, even if you're not an “artist”.' Nelson has faced his own battles with mental health, but speaking from personal experience, he explains, ‘A lot of what's always kept me sane was having my artwork to process my sense of identity.'
In fact, it's the expression of male vulnerability that the Boys Don't Cry collective and Louis Bever have in common. ‘When you make yourself vulnerable, you set yourself free in a lot of ways,’ Nelson adds. This vulnerability, and subsequent sense of release from conventional learnt behaviour, forms an expanded definition of softboi, and perhaps is at the heart of what a true softboi ethos might be.
These creatives are using visual media to demonstrate that it is ok for men to be vulnerable and honest in how they display themselves, both physically and emotionally - the positive response to their work indicates that this vulnerability, instead of being something to hide, is something to be celebrated. Hopefully, this might encourage others to celebrate their own and other people's vulnerability, which could create the 'domino effect' of openness that Nelson mentioned.