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Stuart Mead.

One of the most memorable 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.

Even though Mead is concerned with the visual pleasures of the real world, he proves himself a most faithful witness to what can only be imagined. Whether of teenage women on the moon or devils wielding paintbrushes, his works find their power in the way they create a bridge between Mead's imagination and our own, his analysis and our understanding. Mead's paintings don't always present a pretty picture, but underneath all that merciless psycho-drama is a stubborn belief in the morality of speaking one's truth to the world, no matter what the consequences.
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Title Annotation:Speed Boat Gallery, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Author:Leo, Vince
Publication:Artforum International
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Words:426
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