“They Used To Call Me A Fag” Renders Haunting Portrait of Masculinity

Abby Hawkins , Arts Editor

It was difficult to navigate the swarm of bodies crammed excitedly into the basement of Hales Gymnasium on Wednesday night, all drawn to this dusty corner of campus for the well-known allure of Sarp Yavuz’s Senior Studio show, “They Used To Call Me A Fag”: the sex, the spectacle, the uncertainty of the many circumstantial relationships between photographer and subject in Yavuz’s sexually charged images of young, athletic men.

Indeed, this ambiguous dynamic underlies the uncertainty of Yavuz’s relationship with his own father, a theater director whose presence — and lack thereof — shaped his approaches to art and to sex. A less crowded atmosphere would have allowed audience members to appreciate the overwhelming presence of ghosts in this space: ghosts of the artist’s fantasy life, of his absent father, of the thousands of memories in Istanbul that dictated what heterosexual manhood looked and sounded like.

Yavuz, who recently received the New Artists Society Scholarship from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, made magnificent use of his venue and all of its unique spaces — the artist took advantage of every sink, bathroom stall, locker, even a fire extinguisher case to curate engaging site-specific displays.

Though his work does not completely depend on its installation, his use of the locale — and the homoerotic connotations of a 1970s-era men’s locker room with many concealed corners — allowed the world visible within the photographs to engulf the viewer. In a bathroom, for example, an informational label for each piece hung on the front of a stall door, with its photograph waiting above the toilet inside. In his series “Substitutions for My Father,” Yavuz affixed a candid Polaroid portrait of a man to each of a row of lockers, making it seem as though their possessions lay inside.

Not all of Yavuz’s photographs set the camera’s gaze on the bodies of other men. In “Self-Portrait,” Yavuz’s small-scale, ghoulish likeness lay in a sink, washed-out and obscured by glitter and laundry detergent. “Chris lent me his cleats” featured several grainy images of feet, snapped from the vantage point of the photographer, pinned next to an illuminated pair of cleats.

When Yavuz focuses his artistic gaze inward, the clarity and romantic lushness of his group portraits of others dissolves into a messy, textural question of selfhood. If he knows what he covets in the bodies of other men, does this negate his ability to conceptualize himself as a sexual being?

The artist’s own emotional involvement with his subjects came to life in his performance in the middle of the show’s timespan, in which Yavuz slowly made his way across a wooden locker-room bench while sporting gold-striped sweatpants and a gold-detailed Adidas warm-up jacket. Each step forward, each grasp into thin air, was wrought with tremors he sent quaking through his body; at one point, he fell forward onto the bench without losing the frantic energy of his upright movements. At the end of his “runway” waited a chair laden with an Oberlin varsity jacket. Yavuz draped himself across the chair, rummaging in the jacket pockets, until a uniform-clad soccer player emerged from the audience and asked to take his speakers. Several more teammates emerged and filed into the showers, Yavuz joining the procession with a grimace, before the team disrobed in the next room and began chanting to pump themselves up for an imagined impending game.

This contrast between the artist’s over-the-top erotic gaze and the quavering, vulnerable products of his turn inward is what imbued “They Used To Call Me A Fag” with an emotional resonance it may have lost without those examinations of the man within. While the highly saturated, almost Neoclassical richness of Yavuz’s larger compositions dramatizes their subjects, shadows playing up their muscle tone and sweat-sheened skin, his ability to act on his desires seems restricted by his lack of self-awareness, if not negated completely.

Sex, while deeply intertwined with Yavuz’s inner turmoil, sometimes functions as a distraction from another imagined, though mostly invisible, relationship: that of father and son. A single well-worn photograph of the artist as a child on a merry-go-round with his father nods to the most important figure in the show.

For all its spectacle, the smirks and grins of recognition as students spotted their friends and former hook-ups on the walls of the locker room, “They Used To Call Me A Fag” spoke the loudest to what it lacked in its physical presentation: the silence and emptiness of entering a manhood one does not understand how to inhabit.