tough & tender catalogs 40 years of adolecent love and pain
James Ford by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1979
In their show Tough & Tender, the National Portrait Gallery have taken on the complex task of communicating the pain and romance of growing up. Drawing on work from artists across decades and countries, they pick apart the complexities of relationships and identity; simultaneously demonstrating how universal and isolating adolescence can be.
The artists featured in the show include giants of contemporary photography — Robert Mapplethorpe, Larry Clark and Nan Goldin all appear— alongside local talent Warwick Baker and Rozalind Drummond. Together, they explore lofty ideas of masculinity and gender through their own lives, memories and pasts. Looking at the images you're struck by the feeling of intimacy that can be cultivated between the viewer and a subject they'll never know, but seem to implicitly understand.
This feeling of an ephemeral connection is partially owing to curator Chris Chapman, who approached the show as an exercise in shared nostalgia and reflection. i-D spoke to him about the work's impact over the years and the duality of everyday life.
I assume you've spent a lot of this year thinking about our relationship to youth. Why do you feel we're so romanced by this period of life?
Our adolescent years define who we are: while our neurology is set in the womb and early childhood, we become highly self-aware in adolescence. It's a time when we are searching for an identity. That's a powerful story for each of us.
Being the driving force behind this show, tell us about your personal relationship to these images?
I have a strong memory of seeing some of these works, and them helping me understand my identity as a gay man. I was in my twenties; the realisation was an intellectual one because I'd already experienced feelings of being different since I was a boy. Perhaps the artworks in the exhibition will resonate for visitors too, and relate to their own experiences of seeking self-identity. To me the exhibition brings particular images together a bit like a poem or a piece of music — they relate to create an emotional feeling and tone.
I know you're personally interested in the presentation of masculinity in art, that's very present across a lot of this work, tell me about how these artists explore that.
When masculinity is present in the images of boys in the exhibition there's often a tension between the tough outward expression of bravado, and the inner need for love and acceptance. That tension, and its emotionally poignant nature, is very powerful in the exhibition. Toughness here isn't just a pose or muscular look. It's takes toughness — courage — to really express who you are. The tenderness is in the gentle sense of empathy that the artists bring to their art. These artists share an understanding that identity — masculine or feminine or trans — is fluid, and that our self-identity can naturally evolve over time.
Can we quickly spend a moment on the Australian artists included in this mix: how do you feel they sit among the international talent?
I have great respect for Rozalind and Warwick's work. They both bring such a gentle attitude to the way they depict their subjects. This allows the individuals they photograph to feel safe about opening up for the camera. Their work is certainly equivalent in its approach, sensitivity and awareness to their peers in the exhibition. I'm really pleased to have their participation.
Tough & Tender is showing at the National Portrait Gallery until 16 October
Text Wendy Syfret
Images via the Australia National Portrait Gallery