Swedish photographer and video artist Maria Friberg’s video blown out (1999) is the fifth in a series of projections at the Johnson Museum, throwing Friberg’s image of a nude man bobbing up and down in a frothy, turbulent sea onto its front façade at dimensions reminiscent of a drive-in movie theater. Enlarged to a 25 x 29–foot image, we cannot help but be captivated by this lone man’s struggle within a vast field of cresting waves. Obliquely referencing the larger-than-life masculinity of the Marlboro Man, Friberg’s image tends to be more ambiguous, allowing for the possibility of vulnerability and anxiety in her male protagonist. In this way, blown out is part of a trend in broader culture to examine more closely the apparently seamless phenomenon of masculinity, which until recently had served as a norm against which images of women were discussed. Friberg’s short video is part of a body of work she produced in the late 1990s which investigates masculinity and what it has to do with being a man. In this work, Friberg challenges traditional views of gender, believing in a more fluid model in which masculinities and femininities are located on one continuum rather than at opposing poles.
Friberg is best known for photographic work featuring male models dressed in business suits. Usually perceived as symbols of power, Friberg’s use of suits seems to function as armor to cover up insecurities and homoerotic tendencies in men. For instance, in her video Confront Me Back (1997), a man dressed in a gray flannel suit is uncomfortably positioned between passenger and driver seats, alternating between flaccid and upright positions, suggesting a position of discomfort and withdrawal. In Somewhere Else (1998), a three-minute video, the artist shows us men’s legs under a boardroom table as they fidget and jockey for space, coming into contact with one another in a sexually suggestive fashion. Friberg’s series of five large color photographs, Almost There (2000), depicts four men floating in identical suits in a pool of bright-blue water. Utterly displaced, the men have lost all decorum and social weight. In Driven (1998), a collaborative video by Friberg and Monika Larsen Dennis, two bodies dressed in black suits and shown cropped at neck and thigh push and pull at each other in a strange dance of attraction and repulsion.
More than any other work from this period, blown out suggests how a certain representation of the masculine might link to the feminine. This overlapping sensibility, expressed through the abandon in the male figure and the overpowering presence of the waves, is meant to throw into question the oppositions along which femininity and masculinity are still being defined. Friberg creates male subjectivities that say “no” to traditional male power and therefore suggest a different kind of relationship to femininity. Thus, while blown out is ostensibly about masculinity, it is also concerned with female subjectivity, which has become an equally apparent theme in Friberg’s recent work.
This exhibition was funded in part by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency.
Maria Friberg’s travel supported by IASPIS (International Artists’ Studio Program in Sweden)
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art