There is a ritual grotesquerie and a poignant humor in the narrative transformation in Evan Schwartz’s photographic series “Reclaiming Puberty.”
The work, as described in the show’s press release “is a maturing timeline about growing up as a girl into a man.” Through his revelation and transformation, Schwartz reinterprets his puberty to comprehend the development of his masculine nature. The first image in the cycle shows the artist as a little girl with a grimace upon her face as her mother applies makeup on her daughter’s cheeks. It’s an image that is at once saccharine as well as a foreshadowing of this little girl’s path to manhood.
One of the more compelling images is “Mona Lisa Prom” documenting the perennial and sometimes painful prom night ritual that so often accompanies the desire for acceptance into the adult world. In this image, the artist as a young girl stands alone before the family home, with a distant gaze in her eyes and a silent smile. The series includes jarring images which document his body after a double mastectomy and end in a staged prom night photograph, with Schwartz now a tuxedo-sporting young man with a cheesy grin of bravado while his arms wrapped around the hips of his pretty female prom date as they pose for the camera.
When Schwartz came out as transgendered, he started photographing himself in male drag, capturing male stereotypes and expressing a duality of male and female through diptychs. The current work captures a confessional honesty often associated with Nan Goldin, while tapping into a gender bending reversal of ordinary values. This gender and body exploration has some precedent with the early drag king performances of Dianne Torre and the bawdy celebration of sexual power by Annie Sprinkle.
Torre once described the transformation that takes place when a woman dresses as a man. Her mannerisms, these clues that imply a gender, fall away.
“She no longer ducks her head, no longer nods in agreement or says, ‘uh-huh’ to encourage or confirm,” she said. “She no longer walks lightly, skimming across the ground, but moves heavily, owning the spot she stands on. This is not a conscious process. It’s as if gender is a matter of scale, and fashion alchemy. Different clothes bring out different characters, one gender implicated in another, indiscrete.”
The series of photographs which came out of Schwartz’s journey captures this duality, this sense of belonging and falling between. This essence of being queer and the unique perspective that comes with it are best expressed by Schwartz in a blog entry on boyohboy.org.
“A new paradox has entered my life. I’m passing almost all the time, which is great, however I don’t know how to act around guys, whether they’re super macho or fruity, like me. I always feel so girly. I was at a dinner tonight. I sat at the boy’s end of the table. I haven’t felt that awkward in a while. After I sat down they continued their conversation after giving looks of confusion and ‘whatever.’ Keep in mind that I’ve known most of these boys for years. They didn’t know what to do with me and even though I could participate in their conversation about Nintendo games, I felt like an alien. I tried to chime in at one point and was ignored. At that point I got up to talk to someone on the “girl’s” end of the table. On the flip side, I’m also not recognized as a man with most gay men I’ve come across. So, all in all, I’m still very intimidated by men and am having a hard time ‘fitting in.’ Back to grade school I go....”
So this young artist is growing up, this time before our eyes and on his own terms. There is a certain naiveté in the work that is somewhat refreshing in these cynical times. Schwartz has taken a bold idea and courageously added humor and honesty to frame often misunderstood or invisible members of our own community and shown a degree of humanity awkward flaws and funny, painful, tearful honesty.