By Matt Sussman
Take one look at Luke Butler’s “Leaders of Men” series, and the “walk softly, but carry a big stick” jokes would seem to write themselves. But Butler’s aim is less satirical. And while they humorously resonate with the recent eroticization of the body politic (think of those shirtless pics of Obama swimming or Putin fishing), Butler’s jarring juxtapositions are strangely generous, offering that most sheltered, scripted, and paranoid of creatures –the politician — the chance to literally let it all hang out, by providing the likes of Nixon and Ford with what Mother Nature never gave them.
Luke Butler, Batman and Robin, collage, 2008
“It was no big deal to show Saddam Hussein being hung to death, but if his cock had popped out that would have been a real crisis,” Butler explains, expounding on our culture’s double standard towards depictions of violence versus male nudity. “It’s such an awful contradiction. My collages don’t solve this problem but run into it head on.”
That problem, at the larger level, would be the restrictions on what is permissible to show (erections, but then again, only metonymically) versus what must be hidden (real emotional vulnerability) that regulate normative displays of masculinity. Whether telegraphing a quivering, emotional inner life or proudly waving around their throbbing members, Butler’s leaders of men aren’t afraid to cry out with their cocks out. In a way, they are distant relations of Mike Kuchar’s paintings of gay heartthrobs, lovingly described by Eileen Myles as “pushing through fountains of testosterone.”
Luke Butler, Encounter, acrylic on canvas, 2009
In one of Butler’s “Enterprise” canvases, Star Trek’s Captain Kirk lies supine, as a large, Yeti-like creature hovers above him. It’s safe to guess that within the context of the episode Kirk was in danger, and suspense came from whether or not he would rouse in time to save himself. And yet, in Butler’s canvas, what comes across is tenderness. Kirk’s facial expression and body language seem to anticipate a lover rather than a threat, echoing innumerable art historical precedents of Cupid approaching Psyche as she slumbers, or even depictions of the Annunciation. He is free to boldly go where no man has gone before.