New York artist Z Behl has a perpetual spark in her eye that’s conspicuous even at the end of an exhaustive work day. “I would never make anything that I wasn’t scared of,” she says, and you immediately believe her. Her ability to push herself beyond what’s comfortable leads to the creation of large-scale works that are filled with cultural references and question conventional standards.
For her new show that opens on Thursday, January 22nd at Kai Matsumiya gallery, the painter/sculptor/photographer created a deck of 15×23′ male nudie playing cards made of medium format photographs printed on Japanese tissue paper and mounted on luan plywood. It’s an old tradition with a gender-reversing twist. Throughout the 52 photo shoots and 52 unique interactions with her male subjects, Behl experienced what it’s like to be the female trickster.
What prompted you to think of and pursue your new project “Joker’s Solitaire?”
I’ve always used photography as a reference point for paintings and sculptures. And I felt like although I was very reliant on the photograph, I was not comfortable with photography as a medium in and of itself. Also, I’ve always been interested aesthetically in my dad’s deck of nudie cards that I had stolen from him as a kid off of his bureau. There is something about that kind of commodity that I was interested in. Also, I’ve been thinking about the female trickster a lot.
What’s the female trickster?
Yeah, like a trickster character in folklore who is typically male and moves between worlds. There’s a lot of different characters who are part of creation myths about where the Earth and the humans came from. And it’s always this God who doesn’t actually have glorified power but has some kind of stolen power. Part of his thing is that he is cunning and mischievous, and he takes a little bit where there isn’t anything and puts it somewhere else. He does this balancing act, and I really relate to this character.
In his book Trickster Makes This World, Lewis Hyde talks about why this character is male and how the female version doesn’t really work because the male trickster is the one with the ability to run away from his family and start again. He can move seamlessly and leave things behind.
And the woman could never do that because she is charged with this procreative thing… I just didn’t buy that, so I went on a research binge where I tried to find examples of female tricksters beyond what he represented and why there was a lack.
I asked myself what would the female trickster be taking pictures of? What’s she trying to do? What am I trying to do? I wanted to make a whole book about where the female trickster came from and why she hadn’t existed before. That whole idea got me into thinking about how I was going to make the images for the book. I think it came to me because I’ve been thinking a lot about gender, power, and sexuality. And I thought how could I conceive of a photo project that is inherently about the photographs?
Your dad is a photographer…
Yeah, pointing the camera at me since I can remember. So I wanted to perform a little bit. I wanted to turn the camera on men. But I also wanted that action to feel more than just a gesture. I needed to somehow beat the paradigm. That’s why the 52 cards really appealed to me because it was this grand gesture that would require a lot of commitment and follow-through. I normally make things that are either really big or require massive undertakings. So I needed in some way to feel like this was ambitious enough. I knew that there’d be a real learning curve too if I had to do that many shoots. Just that quantity of it scared me, and so I thought OK, that sounds good.
What were some of the immediate feelings you were struck with while shooting male nudes for the first time?
You know I told you about the fear, but I also felt really high after those photo shoots. I’m taking these pictures, and then I’m escaping. Like I’m leaving the set, I’m leaving the model, and I’m running away. And especially because it’s a sexually charged experience to whatever degree, which varies a lot, it feels like a one-night stand or something. You really feel like the perpetrator. That was a very arousing thing too in a way, that tangible control.
Did you feel uncomfortable or aroused?
I felt self-aroused. I felt an autoerotic thing because they were watching me being in control. The only really uncomfortable moments were the shoots where I felt like my power wasn’t totally acknowledged. Or there were a couple of times when models were so deeply uncomfortable that I had to really manage their feelings. And that was very hard for me.
But mostly, I had to learn how to direct and how to operate the camera and how to light. I had to be conscious of so many things that I didn’t have time to feel my feelings. So writing in the journal was more like a way of trying to understand the different things that were going on. I had the mental capacity to perform my task although I was going through so much psychologically. And the aftermath was this wave of euphoria. I wanted to revisit those feelings and unpack some of what was going on so that every time I showed up in the room, I could feel better prepared. Yet I could never feel better prepared.
Did your subjects share with you how they felt about being photographed nude? What was their reaction?
I could usually tell based on the moment I asked them what the shoot was going to be like. For instance, one was really into exhibitionism, and he was really excited about it. Another one wanted to feel comfortable, but also didn’t want to reveal himself. He didn’t want to show his penis. I would also let my subjects control more of the context when they felt uncomfortable. The collaborative aspect of the project was very important to me. And they all had different things to say about male sexuality. That was really interesting too.
I feel like part of why so many men I knew were willing [to participate] was because they felt like there was an opportunity for them to display something that people didn’t want to see necessarily. And I was really surprised by how physically insecure a lot of men were about their bodies. A lot of men said, “Well we don’t have to hold ourselves to a standard that women do all the time.” Those are maybe self-evident ideas, but I don’t think that they are very openly discussed. I hadn’t heard men talking about their insecurities like that, so it was interesting to me that it came out at all through these interactions.
What do you want the viewer to take away from this show? What did you take away from this experience?
What I take away from it is that if you have mutual trust, then it’s worth it to push your friends and push yourself. As long as you’re communicating, I think it’s important to be pushing boundaries, not just boundaries, but to be curious and committed to that exploration as well. To do anything in a large scale feels vital somehow. And what I want people to take away from it… I just want them to be interested in shooting men naked. Everybody has a different eye; this is just my vision.
Kai Matsumiya is located at 153 ½ Stanton Street. All photographs taken during the installation process and are not reflective of the final exhibit.