Grin and bear it

Derek Jackson's portraits of large men
By NICHOLAS SCHROEDER  |  June 25, 2010

‘JASON’ Mixed media on fabric by Derek Jackson.

If you thought you knew how to spot a bear, think again. Derek Jackson's 10 fabric portraits may have made the definition a little fuzzier. One of the more engaging and provocative shows exploring sexuality during Pride week, "Honey Cling To Me" contests both queer and straight normativity while showing off some really killer beards.

Jackson's exhibition is positively charged with sexuality. His canvases are cuts of fabric large enough to contain vivid, human-sized forms ensconced in smatterings of ecstatic paint drippings. Also, in this context, bears are inextricably linked to a set of characteristics within gay male culture. Despite this framework, however, it isn't a show about sex.

For a project that examines a specific archetype within a subculture, Jackson's bears don't fix a definitive image. While nearly all his models seem to fit snugly within the taxonomy, Jackson treats the subjects in "Honey Cling to Me" to a series of representational and expressionistic subversions. As a result, they offer a variety of takes on the power, codes, and difference that construct identity and sexuality. Basically, they're more than your average bear.

Most notably, each subject is rendered with an exaggerated pair of elfin ears. As a well-played foil to the prevailing stereotype of bears as high-masculine, slow-witted men, the ears fit them with a timeless cleverness and wisdom, maintaining the environment of the primal without resorting to crude or brutish depictions.

Second, while each is displayed in varying degrees of nearly full nudity, Jackson isn't looking at these men as necessarily sexual beings. Here, the exceptions prove the rule. The subject of "Andrew" stands wearing a coy smile, but without the ears and the lush red backdrop, his expression might appear defensive. "Sayid," another waist-up portrait, appears as a sage-like figure, nearly apparitional against a black backdrop. Unadorned, the men are freed from anything that might reinforce a type, suggesting that a large part of the sexually assertive theme in bear-ness comes in the action of wearing a certain uniform. The active concept here might be that nearly anything functions as a drag act.

While it's unclear to what degree Jackson works from photographs (each piece is labeled as mixed media on fabric), his attention to detail — particularly in the face — is marvelously precise. With evident care, he portrays his subjects in possession of remarkable emotional and physical expression. Bear in mind, these are real people; their personalities are evident. In the cases he exaggerates the physical features of his subjects (um . . . not like that), he does not compromise their realism, instead pulling them deeper into the animistic realm opened by the ears. For example, in "Jamie," a figure stands to his side, his head cocked towards the frame. As if the stepchild of an archangel and a queen wasp, the figure is given a pair of enormous black wings, echoing his protuberant ears while adding another metaphorical dimension to the menagerie.

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