the artist tackling toxic masculinity through nude portrait sessions
Watch Daniel Crook's 'Precious Stones' series being made, in a film by Luka Fisher and Matthew Kaundart.
Still from Precious Stones.
During the first years of his young life, Daniel Crook lived in the shadow of his father’s unpredictable brutality, an explosive quality that culminated in the near-murder of his mother. This would have been shocking if it hadn’t felt so utterly normal — violence was regularly scheduled programming in his rural NorCal home, as common as any weekly special on the staticky living room TV he used to drown out his parents’ muffled shouts.
Plus, in a town populated by men whose main source of entertainment seemed to be getting drunk, harassing women, and throwing punches, a battered wife was hardly news. There, what we now know as “toxic masculinity” was par for the course — men were expected to be aggressive dominating, and unfeeling or they “weren’t considered men at all.”
As a burgeoning, femme-presenting queer kid who took more after his mother’s compassion than his father’s violence, Crook had a hard time understanding why this was the norm. He sensed something deeply off about his father and the other men in his life. It was like they were faking something.
“These men were so sad; so fragile,” he says. “It was very clear to me that their aggression was an act meant to hide their vulnerabilities. I spent a lot of my childhood comparing my own experience with gender to theirs, wondering what it was that actually made a man.”
Aided by an adoration for the gender-ambiguous characters of the Marvel Universe and a healthy dose of Gore Vidal, Crook developed a fascination with way that violent and hegemonic masculinity is expressed. He found himself feeling deeply compassionate towards men whose subscription to stereotypically masculine norms prevented them from loving certain people, feeling certain emotions, and partaking in certain activities that could bring them joy were they not labeled as “gay,” “girly,” or “soft.” He himself had never felt confined to these norms — maybe, he thought, he could help others break free.
Soon after he left home, he developed a method to do just that.
For the past five years, the multifaceted painter, musician and performance artist has been inviting cisgendered, heterosexual men to pose in multiple, hours-long nude portrait sessions during which he attempts, with their consent, to deconstruct and rebuild their masculine identity in the hopes it’ll lead to healthier expressions of manhood. His ongoing project Precious Stones documents his models’ evolving self-concepts, presenting their transformations in vivid assemblages of gouache, ink, and oil.
Crook refers to his unique process as “masculinity reprogramming,” but he’s acutely aware not all forms of masculinity are as malignant as the ones that inspire his work. As a rule, he only works with people who want to have their identity analyzed; whose construct of manliness has damaged themselves or others in some way. For example, one man who posed for him was experiencing what he called “pathological jealousy,” a trait that had interfered with his most valued relationships. Another suffered from severe body dysmorphia, and another still was so afraid to show his emotions or ask for help that he hadn’t had a hug in five years.
“I’ve seen so many men suffer from the narrow and repressive form of masculinity they impose on themselves,” says Crook. “There’s so much jealousy, insecurity, and unworthiness beneath the veneer of the strong, powerful male archetype. By ‘reprogramming’ masculinity, I’m attempting to rewire the neural pathways that lead to those kinds of oppression and replace them with empathy, sexual awareness and tenderness towards the self and others.”
Crook does this as a sort of hybrid art/therapy service for his models, but also because he believes more empathetic, compassionate, and emotionally secure men would make the world a much different place than the world he grew up in.
“Imagine a world built with them in celebration of the diversity instead of in opposition to it,” he says. “That world cannot exist within the the current structures of male programming. Those who are considered minorities can rarely achieve positions of power and influence. I’m hoping to help pave the way for cisgendered men to see other genders, sexualities, races, and ethnicities as not only powerful and important, but as valuable, desirable and deserving.”
During a typical session, Crook’s models undress and pose in a position that feels most comfortable them. Though their nudity is strictly nonsexual and Crook is careful to keep the mood platonic, the act of undressing in front of a man they’ve been programmed to see as a threat to their sexuality tends to bring up some surprising and unfamiliar feelings.
“It be either be terrifying or invigorating, depending on the model,” he says. “Most of these men have never had the experience of standing naked in front of another man, especially a gay or queer one. It can be quite intense. Nudity strips them, quite literally, from the daily armor they wear to hide the truth about themselves, which is that, beneath the facade, they are vulnerable beings who are just as subject to the immensity of their emotions as anyone else. In the context of a safe and consensual space, nakedness helps reconnect men to their bodies in a way that diffuses the dangerous weaponry they’ve been taught to see themselves as.”
The act of stripping down can be extremely vulnerable at first, but about an hour into the session, the walls start to drop. The men start to sink into their nudity and relax under Crook’s gaze. At that point, they’re no longer the image of themselves they’re trying to project— protector, instigator, dominator. Instead, they’re just a person, standing in front of another person; nothing more.
With their armor off and their comfort levels up, the reprogramming can begin. Crook starts by leading a conversation about the history of male sexuality, gently exploring and questioning the way in which men are taught to identify with their genitalia and bodies. Then, playing off their responses, he begins to ask his models more intimate questions.
"Do you remember the first time you were discouraged to touch or talk to your male friends?"
"How does it feel when someone tells you to 'man up'?"
"How do you think your relationship with your mother contributes to your concept of women?"
These questions are windows into his subjects’ psyches, illuminating areas where further exploration might lead to personal growth. They also function as substrate on which more authentic and meaningful male friendships can grow—the deeply personal nature of these questions far transcends the depth and subject matter stereotypically masculine conversation permits, demonstrating to his subject that it’s okay for men to share their feelings without the presumption of weakness or sexual interest.
All the while, Crook paints, documenting his subject’s transformations in collections of jewel-colored gems and stones intended to reflect the way he views the rigid and unchangeable norms of masculinity. By deconstructing the male body down into these “precious stones,” his paintings reduce it into its most elemental forms, giving it some much-needed breathing room from cultural narratives that paint maleness as threatening or physically imposing. Here, the men in his paintings don’t have to “be” or “do” anything in particular — they just are.
This decontextualization of the male form invites the viewer to confront the parts the male body often deemed “dangerous” or “taboo” — torso, thighs, ass, penis. He colors these like dirty, unkempt gems whose brilliance cannot be contained by the gray or beige soot that covers them.
Crook’s use of color is highly intentional — it’s a language he uses to express the way his models identify and transform during the course of their conversations.
Yellow or red means they’ve opened up about exploitation or abuse — they represent the after-bruise that seeps upwards into the flesh after a hit or a fall. The same colors tend to radiate out towards the genitals, hinting at the symbolic weight male genitals carry. Blue penises are repressed; filled with dark blood. They’re heavy, weighted down by it and bursting with pressure. Inky gray and blacks stones symbolize slate: they’re fragile; stacked, and always on the verge of collapse. Were they in front of you, you could push them right over.
At the end of each session, his models are often blissed out and walking on air.
“It was a mixture of catharsis and therapy,” says Scott Mackay, a model who’s posed for Crook since 2017. “At the time, I was working through relationship issues and struggling with body dysmorphia. Going through the process of posing and talking with [Crook] helped me walk through my emotional state in a way that allowed me to truly see where I stood at the time and gain clarity that allowed me to take action. Each time we’ve met I’ve been forced to confront ideas about myself that had previously simply been accepted as my reality because no one had challenged me to look at them any differently. The time with [Crook] gave me the space and vulnerability to dig deeper into those aspects of my manhood, my persona, my psyche, and my perceived reality.”
For Crook’s part, he’s just happy to help.
“We don’t always understand how the house of cards falls until it does,” he says. “But I hope the work I’m doing can pull the right card so that together, we can rebuild a stronger structure together.”
Crook’s process was recently captured in a mini-doc called “Precious Stones,” which i-D is excited to premiere. Produced by artist and longtime Crook collaborator Luka Fisher and directed by Matthew Kaundart, it offers a first-hand glimpse into the formation of more authentic masculinities.
Producer Luka Fisher
Director Matthew Kaundart
This article originally appeared on i-D US.