A MAN with short, dark hair and a moustache sits on a chair, stolidly facing his viewers. In the background, a naked figure is curled on the sofa. The painting, Man And Subject, is one of many in Cork artist Stephen Doyle’s studio; the CIT Crawford Fine Arts graduate is preparing for an exhibition, his first solo show.
It’s been quite the course of studies for Stephen: having had a letter of endorsement from Stephen Fry for the paintings he presented for his final year group show last year, the 23-year-old from Cork city has now received the Lavit Gallery’s annual Student of the Year award, with an exhibition all of his own as a part of the prestigious prize.
His Lavit Gallery show, Alt Masc, has a lot in common with his previous work. A collection of striking portraits of LGBT men, Alt Masc aims to explore the territory of masculinity for gay men.
Last year’s work was based on a collection of portraits of LGBT people in Moscow, examining the effects of Russia’s draconian restriction on their lifestyle.
The subject matter of LGBT identity is close to Stephen’s heart; he himself came out as gay to his family at 20, two days before the marriage equality referendum.
“I wondered if it would change my relationships with my family, especially my father,” he says.
“There’s always that relationship between a son and his father, and my father is very much the alpha-male packet of football, DIY and army all rolled into one.
“I thought that relationship would change, and I was really happy to be entirely wrong about that.”
The result was a liberation, and a turning point in his art; he felt constraints drop, as though he was finally free to address ‘queer’ culture as a subject matter.
Alt Masc features a spectrum of queer men, from Dublin drag queen Paul Ryder to members of the Irish defence forces, and aims to explore the boundaries of male identity.
“Once you identify as being on the queer spectrum, your masculinity gets thrown up into the air,” Stephen says.
“You have to establish yourself as something else. The people in these portraits fall into that because they don’t feel perfectly comfortable; they’ve often incorporated more feminine aspects and that’s been seen as a negative whereas I wanted this show to be about how it’s actually a huge positive, because masculinity in the traditional sense is actually very fragile.”
The cliché of the exaggeratedly camp, effeminate gay man has always been used as a parody of male homosexuality and frequently played a part in homophobia by straight men, as though by denying that gay men are men at all they can be made less threatening, or less of a challenge to heterosexual norms.
But Stephen says a surprising level of hostility towards more effeminate gay men can also be found in LGBT culture.
“You see it on dating apps,” he says. “Profiles will say, ‘no femmes’. I think there are still guys out there who want to avoid being seen as a stereotype; they don’t want an effeminate partner in case they are embarrassed in front of family and friends.”
Stephen’s acrylic portraits for the exhibition show his unique, developing style: strong use of colour and a high degree of attention to detail. But as with his previous collection, the paintings are complemented by an installation element, in this case, wire sculptures he calls “3D drawings.”
A central figure crafted from heavy-gauge wire and soldered metal rods will form a centrepiece for the exhibition, while additional pieces of the same material frame, mingle with and interact with the paintings.
“This is the totem to masculinity,” Stephen says, walking around the piece of metal sculpture.
“It represents the hyper-masculine. I was thinking what the characteristics of the traditionally masculine: tall, square-chested, prominent sexuality. But at the same time, it’s fragile. It’s weak, at its core.”
Stephen, who grew up just a few hundred metres from the Crawford Art College’s Sharman Crawford Street premises, is overjoyed with the Lavit Gallery Award.
“I sound like I’m giving an Oscars speech, but I genuinely wasn’t expecting that honour,” he says. “It’s the most amazing thing you can give an emerging artist: it’s a start and a platform.
“We had an incredibly strong year of artists and there were a huge number of people that I thought would get this, so I hope to do justice to the standard of previous years.”
It’s a platform Stephen means to build on, and he’s aiming high.
“The National Gallery have no works in their permanent collection that discuss ‘queer’ culture. They have Francis Bacon and Patrick Hennessy — while they did identify as gay men, their work only hinted towards it, and you can understand that at a time when it was illegal. But I think it’s crazy that it’s 2018 and that the biggest art collection in the country has nothing that reflects ‘queer’ culture. That’s a goal, and it keeps me motivated and progressing the work.
“What I’ve learned is that regardless whether you see yourself as very masculine or very feminine, the best thing you can do is just know who you are and know that it’s perfectly fine. The strongest person you can possibly be is exactly who you are, with no apology for it.”
Alt Masc – Solo Exhibition by Stephen Doyle opens in The Lavit Gallery, Father Mathew Street, on February 6 at 6pm with Irish Museum of Modern Art Curator Sean Kissane as guest speaker.
The exhibition runs until February 24.