Man Oh Man

Weekend Gallery director Martin Mercader had in mind an affirmative action of sorts when he put together his latest exhibit, "Atom." The title is a play on the name "Adam," and the works in the show represent the male body. Mercader felt that because so much art represents the female nude, it was time to go the other way. This is something of a conceit -- the male body has, after all, been depicted throughout art history, from cave paintings to Michelangelo to Paul Klee. And to really follow through with his idea, Mercader would have needed representations of the male body by female artists. Instead, he uses paintings, drawings, photographs and sculptures by four men in their mid- to late forties: Michael Collins, Richard Fluhr, McKay Otto and Greg Spaulding. "Atom," then, is a formal and emotional exploration of masculinity more than a portrait of the male as object of desire -- and it's probably the better for it.

So what's it like to be a man these days? Not easy, according to Michael Collins. In his four studies and one painting, the protagonist is a twisted and wracked individual, whittled down and elongated like a Giacometti sculpture. Collins' charcoal sketches Touching the Sky and Flailing in the Riptide, drawings of figures against a barely detailed environment, have the same feeling as Giacometti's emaciated human figures, which captured the modern sense of alienation and uncertainty. Collins uses his studies to map out the placement of figures in his paintings, where they're often surrounded by a mythical, apocalyptic setting. In the painting exhibited as part of "Atom," The Light Raps You, the angst of the modern man starkly rendered in the sketches has been given the trappings of a romantic quest. The male figure, hand clapped to forehead, stands chest-deep in an encroaching jungle painted in thick strokes and dark colors. He is illuminated by a light from overhead -- an antihero about to have a hero's epiphany.

Richard Fluhr, in two of the six small paintings that make up his part of "Atom," directly addresses his fight with AIDS. Like the late Keith Haring, Fluhr energizes his pictures with bright, flat colors and black outlines. The images he uses are inspired by a recent trip to China -- diseased cells float above the horizon like suns or yin yang symbols, sometimes pierced by forks and knives in a graphic representation of drug therapy. Fluhr depicts himself struggling with a dragon whose tail is tipped by a penis, a metaphor for his illness. But this exotic personal iconography doesn't always translate into emotional content, leaving the viewer as detached as the disembodied cells in the sky. He's much more successful with Atomic Calculator, which relies heavily on the faux naivete Fluhr's known for. Done in colored pencil on a paper bag, it shows the head of a man; little squares with single-digit numbers printed on them have been glued all over the picture, particularly on the man's face and eyes.

The rest of "Atom" is more focused on the male form than on male psychology (if it's possible to separate the two concerns). Sculptor McKay Otto adeptly plays the time-honored game of Finding New Ways to Represent the Mighty Phallus. Untitled No. B-0069 is a wall-mounted meat hook beneath which dangles a pair of black croquet balls. The balls are cased in and supported by gossamer pantyhose -- one ball in each leg. Untitled No. B-0670 also contains this combination of the violent and the fragile. Five real-looking rubber apples are impaled on the long spout of a rusty oil can. The whole thing is protected, condom-style, by a sheer pantyhose leg that suggests the fragility of the male body and ego. I have just one question for Otto, woman to man: how do you keep those hose from running?

The only artist in "Atom" who doesn't live in Houston is photographer Greg Spaulding, though his work has been seen here before. His contributions to the show are some very traditional greeting-card nudes set in the desert. Spaulding, who teaches in Corpus Christi, uses an unusual gum-bichromate printing process that's more interesting than the photos themselves. He takes thick watercolor paper, applies chemicals and pigment, then exposes it. The process must be repeated over and over to build up an image, and layers of different colors can be used to make one-of-a-kind prints. This is where "Atom" comes closest to showing man as object of desire, and, tellingly, it's also the show's least engaging part. Adam: Creation, which was used on the exhibit's invitation, is a silhouette of a man standing atop a dune with the setting sun shining between his legs. The light is refracted in the camera lens like a world-creating explosion, but not one that's very enlightening. These photos present the male figure as self-absorbed, playing with his own shadow. Perhaps because they don't reveal much about the photographer, they also don't reveal much about the condition of man.

Fluhr, Collins and Otto aren't entirely willing to let the audience in on the emotional state of their subject either, choosing fantasy, abstraction or metaphor as distancers that may reflect the interpersonal gulfs they in fact feel. But they do show a modern man who is fragile, uncertain and faced with battles not necessarily of his own choosing. Perhaps more than offering a revealing or unusual collection of works on the male figure, "Atom" offers successful specimens from established artists working within their usual parameters. It's a show that anyone who wants a look at what Fluhr calls "the Houston School" should sample.

"Atom" will show through July 6 at Weekend Gallery, 1829 Arlington, 864-5226.

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Shaila Dewan