I KNOW it’s early but I’m calling it: Maggie Hayes’ No Man’s Land might be the most feminist show this year.
No Man’s Land, opening at the promising new west Savannah gallery/venue The Welmont on Feb. 13, is the climax of a year spent doing something that even in 2016 feels transgressive for a woman artist to do: explore, dismantle, and occasionally celebrate our cultural definitions of masculinity.
Hayes has accomplished this through a variety of mediums: paintings (one enormous, 8-foot long painting depicts her father at various stages of his life as he performs a series of swan dives), installation pieces (mainly a series of boxing gloves with quotes burned into them) and sculptural works.
Let’s be clear about one thing from the start: this subject matter is unspeakably complex; it’s absolutely too big to be contained or examined with exactitude in the scope of a single show.
But Hayes’ ambition is tempered by her refined approach: a choice to deal specifically with definitions of masculinity as they filter into her own life – her relationship with her father, observations drawn from conversations with her male peers, and her fascination with the idea of the athlete as a modern warrior.
As Hayes dug deeper into her sources of inspiration (sports documentaries, the biographies of famous boxers, interviews with artists and friends, etc) her concepts for the show’s artworks were forced to evolve as her thoughts about masculine ideals did.
“My ideas about masculinity sort of unraveled,” she told me. “There’s so much that’s been built up that’s not based on any real thing that’s worth aspiring to. I feel like a lot of my peers are in this lost space in their lives where nobody wants to live the same way that their dads lived but they also haven’t really forged a new path.”
We’re alone, standing inside of The Welmont’s gallery; two women’s voices echoing off of concrete floors and out the open door into the twilight of Montgomery Street. Outside, the air is peppered with the voices of men shouting greetings to one another, laughing, singing as they walk by.
As we stand surrounded by paintings of men, the sounds of men, the undeniable masculine energy of Montgomery Street at night, I feel the weight of our presence as outsiders.
In a sense, it’s exhilarating to watch Hayes paint her monumental mural of Jack Johnson on the side of the Welmont, analyze Evander Holyfield’s upbringing, and speak candidly about the emotional effects of her father’s retirement; I feel a shot of feminist pride when I listen to her talk about her fearless excavation of the internal lives of men.
The invitation to analyze the experience of the opposite gender has, until extremely recently, only ever been extended to men.
No Man’s Land has the audacity to assert that men’s emotional lives are every bit as complex as women’s – that fitting into the classic “warrior” archetype isn’t a gendered experience, it’s as much about overcoming mental adversity as it is physical adversity.
On why her conception of masculinity is so tied up in athleticism and action, Hayes says, “I feel like most people who have really pushed themselves in a physical way have also gone through mental transformations that speak to that same sort of ability to overcome. This kind of pursuit is most quantifiable in sports or in a physical sort of way.”
While much of Hayes’ imagery is concerned with the language of physical pursuits, that’s not to say the concepts behind the works aren’t cerebral. “I’m trying to speak to and empower these ideas of masculinity that I feel like are so much deeper than the superficial qualities [our society] has tried to impose on men,” Hayes explains.
The problem, No Man’s Land suggests, is that our cultural ideas of masculinity are, in many ways, just as restrictive as our ideas about femininity. We tell men they shouldn’t cry, shouldn’t show weakness, need to achieve a certain body type to be a “real” man. These things are as damaging as expectations levied against women.
One of the oldest works in the show, a portrait of Hayes’ friend Aaron, is also one of the most successful at illustrating this issue: Aaron sits, shirtless, at once the object of potential desire or admiration, but also replete with vulnerability under the gaze of the female artist.
“I think a lot of people have seen the rise of feminism as a zero sum thing where if women are given more power, men have to relinquish power,” Hayes tells me. “But I think we can both be enjoying our lives and having purpose. For men there’s a lot of inner work now to figure out what’s actually meaningful.”
Like Hayes, I find myself drawn to the stories of the boxers who inspired her. As we talk through a handful of the pieces set to go on display, we pause on a pair of boxing gloves burned with the phrase “Get used to me.”
The words are from Muhammad Ali’s quote, “I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”
Hayes explains why she was so intrigued by these words: “It’s such a powerful statement because he’s saying ‘I am who I am, it’s up to you to expand.’”
That’s what’s at the heart of No Man’s Land: our ideals, our archetypes need to expand to fit the individual. Anything else is just suffocation.