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Craig LeBlanc Sizes Up The Cost of Masculinity

Art Gallery of Calgary March 22 to May 4, 2013

From laptops to handhelds, from bank accounts to anatomy, from gross national debt to the termination of the penny: size matters. In “Vanity Fare” at the Art Gallery of CalgaryCraig LeBlanc supersizes the phenomenon of masculine overcompensation.

Parodying objects of desire, the seven pieces comprising the show are steeped in the longing they seek to override. (Disclosure: I also wrote about these works in the exhibition’s catalogue.) The industrial largesse and overt constructedness of the work rely on a mechanical and technical precision that might appear to dilute the artist’s presence. Yet LeBlanc’s larger-than-life sculptural proportions reverberate with his presence precisely because his hand is nowhere to be seen.

A seeming impersonality masks the hulking vulnerability that haunts each piece, and it underscores each work’s thematic content: a quest for masculinity. The artist’s muted signature allows viewers to confront their own subjectivities. Desire (and its objects) defines us in the eyes of another. Desire assumes both a lack and an audience, and a sense that in one way or another we just don’t measure up. Yet, through his humour, Leblanc loosens the imaginary fixity of identity by encouraging viewers to laugh at themselves and the work.

On Guard (2007)—for me, the organizing piece of the show—is a caricature of measures of masculinity. This oversized, six-foot-long athletic protective cup merges personal and national identity politics by punning of the coveted Stanley Cup and by referencing the national anthem. On Guard also confronts the illusion of containment that pretends one’s sexuality, sense of gender identification, or sense of self can be protected or fixed.

LeBlanc extends this metaphor in All I Loved, I Loved Alone (2010), a large bronze turtle, and The Hatchlings (2008), 129 smaller aluminum turtles. In both the larger and the smaller works, the protective cup becomes a turtle’s shell. In The Hatchlings, shining and newly hatched turtles scurry up the gallery wall, as if towards the sea, in an evolutionary pull toward the singularity of adulthood. Born with leathery shells at birth, turtle hatchlings epitomize a textural tension between the hard and the soft that characterizes “Vanity Fare.”

Oversized and mounted on the wall, Piece (2007), a pink polystyrene foam gun, is both a humorous contradiction of compensatory promise and a castration nightmare, incapable even of shooting blanks. With its barrel sealed off, Piece packs a powerful punch.

Similarly, in One on One (2011), LeBlanc takes a shot at himself by erecting two six-foot-tall steel-and-aluminum joysticks. Through the umbilical tension of the joysticks’ shared cord, LeBlanc parodies the artist figure as narcissistic and puerile. Under the illusion of relationality and interdependence, the two joysticks perform masturbatory emulations of self as if in psychoanalytic projective identification, anchoring the show in a mirrored syntax.

Yet One on One is also an important counterpart to the haunting Self-Portrait (2013)—a nearby wall text that reads “I don’t love you anymore.” In light of this piece, the ever-so-slight slack on One on One’s joystick cord seems suggestive of both bondage and freedom; it seems to say, “Come here, go away.” Here, the pressures of conforming to a masculine ideal seem to immobilize the subject.

The ghosted “writing on the wall” to which One on One gestures synthesizes “Vanity Fare.” As a barely discernible script, the wall text’s apparent confession is disingenuous. Like Shell (2013)—the sliced and hollowed-out husk of a 1975 Trans Am—Self-Portrait suggests a sense of diminishment that is the antithesis of culturally sanctioned masculine attributes like vigour, courage and potency.

At once massive and diminutive, LeBlanc’s work challenges the very notion of proportion. In many ways, “Vanity Fare” is an ode to perception, suggesting our view of ourselves as always fundamentally imaginary. Spanning a decade of output by the artist, the show asks not what or who makes the man, but rather, just how big a man he can be.

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