My stereotypical idea of masculinity conjures up images of hard graft, toil, the bread winner going out to work and manual labour. This may be in part due to my upbringing. Sheffield is and has been a northern industrial town. Brick steel and coal the blood which flows through the arteries of this place.
The effects of the collapse of the steel industry and close of the mines had a detrimental effect on the mental health of men here. Suicide rates have never truly recovered in spite of continued efforts and campaigns emphasising the need to talk.
With men four times more likely to commit suicide than women is this toxic masculinity preventing real progress? How do we reappraise what it is to be a man? Do we need to redefine masculinity?
Connor Shields work Tensions at the Yorkshire sculpture park Boathouse uses sculpture to encapsulate the tension between materials, breeze block steel and vice against elaborate soft knitting and denim rope. The interplay of these two materials as I was able to experience the space naturally created a narrative in my mind.
The sculpture appears totemic of one figure. A peon. The restraints or other materials exerting a pressure upon them. While in conversation with Connor we discussed the influence of gender and class upon his work, how his art seeks to address the problem of toxic masculinity and how this plays out with the distortion of the forms.
“I feel my sculptures subtly address concerns and issues I have with toxic masculinity, using objects that have gendered stereotypes, and questioning these stereotypes through subversion”
Walking into the space my eyes were drawn to the piece at the very back of the room. Brace perfectly envisages anxiety. Balanced precariously the block is held by the denim rope as if in free fall. The image rang like a sudden clear point of origin.
The other artworks speak of conflict, the associated piece uses the denim rope wrapped around the block which brought on feelings of armour, personal protective clothing used as a means of identity but shielding the raw abrasive cold brutality of the emotional turmoil within.
As I followed my own contrived narrative arc the next piece spoke to me of conventions of beauty. The material synched at an imagined waste. I joked that before the piece was titled it should be called “36 24 36”. Perfection realised only through torsion. Conflict between the materials again reflecting an internal truth.
Feelings of depression hit me upon looking at another of the works. a steel I beam supported by a muted knitted piece. The cool colours and stillness feel in keeping with the journey of one person, their will to conform to societal norms resulting in the weight muting and dulling what could have been. Yet still the totem pushes and upholds the Steel in some small part. Weighs down but not crushed. A fitting metaphor.
At the end of this every person’s pilgrimage all that has been done has taken its toll. Distortion is the only result. The block laid on its side as if at rest, asleep or in pain. The pink scarf distorted by the pressure of the ratchet strap. Pressure placed upon a wound. Held.
Masculinity in its current form is damaging. Through art we can answer the question of what masculinity is and how it can change and adapt. Connor’s work speaks of a past and present issue of repressed blokes stoicism. Strength above all else and showing no signs of fragility or “being soft”