The hot mic heard round the world.
In 2006, Donald Trump was recorded telling graphic and disturbing stories about women in a “good ol boys,” “it's only locker-room talk,” misogynistic manner and bragging about how he could do anything to women. Tarana Burke, a civil rights activist, launched the Me Too movement that same year. Ten years later, both would receive extensive media attention.
Neither the life of the individual nor the history of society could be understood without understanding both --C. Wright Mills
Awareness around toxic masculinity is increasing in large part due to Trump's horrifying comments and to Burke's phrase, originally created to help women victims of sexual violence and then reignited as a slogan for the anti-sexual harassment movement. Never before in history have people rallied around women's sexual abuse issues to the extent we're seeing now, with actions ranging from debates over the nuances of what is and isn't assault to a fair number of men evaluating their behaviors and becoming better allies.
Society teaches girls that they're here for male pleasure, but it's equally important to recognize how society trains our boys to exert their desires--dominance is power and power is sexy. Add to the cocktail a few cubes of white privilege and whoo-boy, we have an intoxicating drink that some of us have had roofied.
Take your stinkin' paws off me, you damn dirty ape! —Charlton Heston, Planet of the Apes (1968)
"You can do anything" isn't just a statement of male-perceived power over women, it's a maxim on the ideological, political and cultural belief in American power over the outsider, with the outsider being, of course, anyone not from around these here parts. It's classic movie. Good versus evil. The idea that the good guy is 1. the guy and 2. the white guy, born and raised in America, and 3. everyone else is a threat. To eliminate a threat, you must see it as something non-human: women are objects; immigrants are animals; Middle Easterners are terrorists.
I paid a visit to painter Adam Cochran recently. We first spoke in an interview in the summer of 2017, before he left to pursue an MFA at UC Davis. I was eager to find out how his art had changed over the last couple of years. We walked from Philz Coffee downtown to his studio on campus, enjoying a windy, spring day and the best cup of coffee I've had in awhile (I recommend the light roast called Dancing Water).
An exciting aspect of seeing the evolution of Adam’s work over time is not only his movement from an exploration of middle-class, white suburbia, to physical and mental torture, to his current work on toxic masculinity, but also the through lines of self-awareness. He examines how these themes relate to and inform his own childhood and how these ideas of entrapment play out in our political system.
The personal and the political is a universal theme described by American sociologist C. Wright Mills in The Sociological Imagination, wherein “neither the life of the individual nor the history of society could be understood without understanding both." Later, feminists adopted the concept as a rallying cry to address how one's location within a system of power relationships can be traced by personal experiences. Adam’s paintings give us moments to address how experiences in our youth—television, movies, and other pop culture—are saturated images and ideas of toxic masculinity, thus making them comfortable cogs in a harmful political system.
Working in emblematic colors of red, white, and blue, Adam lays out a series of individual 22”x30” acrylic paintings on paper spaced 2” apart, creating a 158” x238” grid. Images of Leave it to Beaver sit alongside superheroes, Rambo, and icons of the classic western movie—all the myriad ways in which toxic masculinity permeates our culture, subtly and not so subtly. Adjacent to the grid are two oil paintings, each 84” x 77”. Their large size plays against the relatively small size of the paper, but is dwarfed by the grid as a whole. Similar colors are used, but this time the imagery is more intimate, more personal. You can sense that Adam is in these paintings, and indeed, images of the artist begin to appear. Suddenly we know he isn’t an outsider looking in; this is the artist in the thick of it, looking OUT.
If they move, kill 'em." —William Holden, The Wild Bunch (1969)
By exploring the genesis of the thought processes that allow us to set up systems in our society that normalize violence and dehumanize entire groups of people--to such a degree that we are willing to call them animals, ban them from our borders, regulate their bodies, and strip away their rights--the artist is asking us to use our sociological imaginations to reflect on our personal experiences and how they relate to and uphold a toxic system of power.
You can see Adam's work at the MFA Thesis Exhibition, opening May 30 at Manetti Shrem Musuem, alongside Bailey Anderson, Julian Childs-Walker, Rachel Deane, Sarah Frieberg, and Brooklynn Johnson.