Curated by Louis Wise
14 October - 20 November 2021
Extended to 27 November by appointment
Saturday 27 November 14.00 and 16.00
free no booking required
AdeY, Soufiane Ababri, James Bartolacci, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Adam Fearon, Alex Foxton, Sunil Gupta, Christopher Hartmann, Florian Hetz, Dan Kane, Cary Kwok, Michael Leonard, Gilbert Lewis, Herbert List, Kate Merry, Oluseye, Prem Sahib, Martin Sekera, Howard Tangye, Wilhelm Von Gloeden, Karlheinz Weinberger
TJ Boulting is delighted to present The Gaze, a group show curated by writer and editor Louis Wise. It takes as its starting point Moroni’s enigmatic and powerful portrait, The Tailor, which hangs in London’s National Gallery. His eyes, looking out directly at the viewer, are mysterious, touching and alluring, and have intrigued viewers for over 400 years. Bringing together contemporary and historical artists, The Gaze seeks echoes of this keystone of male portraiture, exploring the intimate, even unsettling relation between artist and sitter.
The Gaze! Oh, I know - did you get it? Or rather, how long did it take you? I had to, I'm sorry. If it's a tad obvious, obviousness is part of the point here - part of the direct, somewhat bracing act of looking at someone, and them looking right back. To lock eyes with another can be a civilised thing, obviously, but it can entail more extreme things - sex, or violence, or the two enmeshed together. Not least when two men are involved.
I have always had a thing about eye contact. First, it was couched in fear. Living in Plymouth in the 1990s, it was vital to not exchange glances with any other boy in a random or surprising setting: a corridor, a bus, a gym changing room. To be seen to be looking would immediately mark you out as a poof. "What are you looking at?," was the default response - a panicked one, I see now, though at the time it seemed barked with some authority. And what was I looking at? Was I cruising them ("perving," we said then— so much less sensual) or was I just trying to suss them out? Trying to understand something, if only about myself? Sometimes the look was sexual, sometimes it wasn't. Sometimes it was just sexual on a sliding scale, which is actually just how most human interactions play out. But never mind the theories: to gaze at someone - not that gazing dreamily, roaming all over, was even a remote possibility back then - came with the clear consequence that you would probably get your head kicked in, and not in a chic Jean Genet kind of way.
Later, as I got older and came to London, "came out" as they say, I began to realise that you could tell who was gay or queer by the eye contact - a split second of recognition where the person was seeking you out exceptionally, and scrutinising you for signs. Some worry, still, but mixed far more thrillingly with sex and complicity. I realised also that there were those who avoided eye contact to an almost comical degree, which again, unfortunately for them, tended to reveal desire and/or angst in any case. Apparently I am quite a heavy gazer - I love to "lock eyes", and I've pulled quite a few men that way, words utterly by the by. In short, whether you hold the eye or studiously don't hold the eye, it can't be casual. We've surely felt this all the more recently, as months in masks have made us rely on our eyes all the more, or maybe made us even warier of them. Only the undesiring flicker casually over you. Which is some explanation — but not all — of the show.
I can't quite recall when I laid eyes on Moroni's The Tailor. I do know that he appeared to me quite logically, serenely, as a near-perfect work of art. Who is he? Why does this portrait exist? We don't really know. In a sense, that only heightens its appeal: most great works of art should remain a little hostage to mystery -- it allows them to evolve along the generations. People often remark that the picture is unusual because Moroni is portraying not an aristocratic patron, but a man with an occupation - witness the cloth he holds and his shears, still gaping a little. And yet speaking to Arturo Galansino, who curated the brilliant Moroni show at the RA a few years ago, it's clear it's not all totally sorted - the outfit and the kit don't quite match up, the accessories are almost ornamental. Conveniently, for our purposes, we can suggest it's a type of drag; we can certainly say the Tailor is trade.
We also know very little of Moroni's sexuality, but we know he was deeply religious. The one doesn't explain much about the other, though I feel like both, to be experienced fully, require a certain fervour. Certainly the Tailor lends himself to various fantasies, and it was notable how many artists in the show told me they loved him too. But I'm reluctant, like them I think, to reduce him to a mere pin-up. To me the vulnerability, the pride, the solitude of the Tailor is as pertinent as any come-hither look.
I feel the same about all the work in the show, which across a dazzling variety of styles and media shows that the act of looking at men, often by men (but not exclusively), is a surprising and fragile thing. It is very often political, but thank God, it's also fun. I want to make clear this is not an exhaustive selection - there are many more gazes, in many more guises, that I can't wait to engage with in the future. I just hope that this show is both a barometer of some progress, and yet still naughty, funny, savage - not too respectable or tamed. Frankly, that's not how I like to look. I'd like to salute Moroni, his Tailor, and of course all the artists who feature here - people who had to face their own desires and terrors just to make this kind of work at all. It's rarer than you think. Don't be afraid to gaze.