Review by Gerhard Clausing •
When you first look at the cover of this photobook, a number of unusual features immediately become apparent:
The cloth binding is a glorious purple, the color of royal and religious accoutrements. The edges of the pages are graced with glorious gold-leaf, historically the mark of a very important book.
Then we start to think about the meaning of the title, and it is the old admonition, part of shared belief systems outlined in the biblical tradition, for man to rule over and be the “master” of all the other creatures on earth.
We notice that the title of the book is printed one word per centered line in the manner of book title pages from centuries ago, or items of liturgy, yet the typeface is modern. When you open the book, the inside title page repeats the arrangement, but in a more playful, hand-scrawled manner, throwing us off completely.
We start to get the idea that Shane Rocheleau not only wants to make us think but also wants us to have visceral reactions to the topic of the supposedly assigned role of “master” along with all its history and various corollaries that have followed us right into our present era of continuing struggles for everyone to achieve full equality and freedom from prejudice and hatred. This work is meant to contribute to triggering a serious examination of the American dream and religious fervor, both of which can be highly exclusionary. Because his artist statement is such an impassioned presentation, I would like to quote it here:
For the past three years, I have been making work about white American masculinity. I am scarred but exceptionally privileged by it, and thus it is my responsibility to address it.
White American masculinity is a construct. It is the subtext in detergent and power tool ads, crystallized at football games and in sermons, described in the design of little boys’ clothing. It undergirds our politics and permeates our homes. And it’s scary.
You may notice that if you aren’t white enough or man enough, they’ll put you through hell. They’ll tease you and shove you down and feel better about themselves for beating you. So am I winning yet, I ask? Have I won the American dream? When others look at me, do they know that I am both the problem and the activist? I know what I’m fighting against. And I am it.
I have both benefited from and been duped by my whiteness and my maleness. I have won. But I don’t always feel like a winner. Celebrating the cowboy, the war hero, or the boxer, for instance, requires that we simultaneously obscure the emotional neglect, violence, and physical injury that a man embodying (or seeking to embody) this construct will experience or produce.
The internal contradictions I experience are a microcosm of our nation’s. Founding fathers such as Patrick Henry—who demanded either Liberty or Death—are memorialized in myriad, public ways, while their anonymous slaves died liberty-less. On one front, we fought a war for independence, while on the other, we fought to deprive others of theirs, hastening the genocide of America’s native population. And now, with free and democratic elections, we continue to elect leaders who perpetuate the racist, misogynistic, homophobic, and xenophobic language that traces a history of profound Othering, subjugation, and injustice.
I hardly have the language I need to talk about this. Sometimes it feels like I need to make it up. It’s scary to say it’s scary to be a white man in this country, because it’s even scarier to be a woman or a minority. I am he whom I fight against; I need to call deep on my empathy, for to receive it I must first give it. The contradictions plague and confuse me. This project—a portrait of a psyche—is the language I’ve thus far conceived.
This is a project of earnest and courageous self-examination. Rocheleau reminds us to examine elements of belief systems that are in need of mending rather than amplification. The images are at times starkly confrontational, at other times very moving, and all are in need of the viewer finding a connection between the narratives depicted and the viewer’s own story.
We see kinks in the system that some present as flawless; forces of nature greater than man (or woman!), tangled roots and cables that imply tangled connections and misinterpretations. We see angry or sad old white men that may not feel they have achieved such heroic outcomes as the system may once have promised them, long, long ago, and youngsters still in line for promise-fulfillment, but perhaps with some doubts. Abstract images full of ambiguities make the viewer take time to contemplate what’s been inherited and to consider implementing some changes in attitudes and behaviors that would be more worthy of a masterful performance. Rocheleau’s strengths are his soul-searching portraits and his probing symbolism. You really do have to spend quite some time studying such images in order to evaluate your own belief system alongside of them, and to consider some improvements.
An intelligently designed and compelling photobook, a strong contribution to the never-ending quest of artists to help us see ourselves more clearly in a world that needs to change for the better. Highly recommended!
Photographer: Shane Rocheleau, (born in Falmouth, Massachusetts; lives in Richmond, Virginia)
Publisher: Gnomic Book, Brooklyn, New York; © 2018
Prose: Bible quotation from the book of Genesis
Cloth-bound sewn hardback; 112 pages with 50 color images; unpaginated; index of titles, partly redacted; 7.6 x 10 inches; edition of 500, printed in Germany by DZA