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It was the bookshelf that sent me over the edge on the opening night of sophiajacob‘s Organized By Elspeth Walker exhibition. OK, sure, the whole installation was a topsy-turvy assault on an art gallery’s typical white-cube space. Walker, a New York-based performance and installation artist whose Tumblr and Instagram games are strong, turned the entire gallery into a black-walled room. The only way to divine whose room it might be was by drinking in the stuff that filled it.

Chains tether a white torso sculpture to the ceiling like a punching bag. The whole floor was covered with a blackish carpet, and I say blackish only because the dim lighting—provided by single-bulb lamps sitting on the floor and red candles, bathing pockets of the room in a strip-club seediness, with a seemingly cigarette-smoke steeped shade on another lamp radiating a tar-yellow hue to a different area—made it difficult to tell what exact dark color the carpet was. It’s the kind of dark color and lighting scheme that hides dirt, wine spills, and the lack of regular vacuuming (at least, I suspect such from personal experience). Off to one side of the room a music amp sat on the floor, turned on. It felt like the practice corner of an improvising noise musician who likes to stare into the feedback he’s making.

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And I do mean he, because the room felt like the kind of space made by a DIY guy who has decided that he’s going to be avant-garde. Nay, that he is avant-garde. Cutting edge. Experimental. And he’s trying really hard to telegraph just how avant-garde he is through the things he puts in his room. A handmade sign posted on the wall by the amp invites: “Boy’s club! Members . . . . Wanted! Boys Only!” Two asterisked items note bonuses “if you play music” and “if your set is a ritual practiced many times to seem spontaneous and painful.”

The droll joke in that poster is perfectly obvious to anybody’s who has sat through a set of very serious noise music—see also: power violence, industrial, many varieties of something metal or –core or –grind, etc.—and I certainly have. Some of it was revelatory, some of it was less interesting than making rice, and most of it, as with any art, fell somewhere in between. With this poster Walker makes a fish/barrel observation: Music writers have been ribbing the guy sitting with his eyes closed and deep in creative thought while operating a table covered with homemade/hacked electronic equipment that cough out a racket that sounds like your grandfather’s old console television before a series of thwacks to the side makes picture go from fuzzy to almost clear. So what?

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There was also nude dude embedded high into the walls and ceiling of the gallery, which was a bit of a giveaway that this was a guy’s room. He, whoever he was, lay on his back in a little alcove in the back, one foot sticking through a hole in the wall seen from the main room in the gallery; a hand, forearm, and lower leg visible from one of the small rooms behind the main gallery, a whole flank from the other small room behind the gallery. During the entire time I milled about, as people came in and looked around, chatting, partaking of beverages, welcoming each other in the good-to-see-you pleasantries that accompany openings, he never seemed to move. Or if he did, I didn’t catch it. He lay there, perfectly still and silent, as if he was part of the building or performing an endurance piece.

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Including him was a cheeky way for Walker to dig into the vagaries of masculinity that the entire installation explored. In The New York Times’ September 6, 2013, profile of veteran sculptor/performance artist Chris Burden—in anticipation of his solo show at the New Museum, Extreme Measures—fellow Los Angeles performance artist Paul McCarthy said Burden wasn’t “someone who gave off a sense of machismo,” alluding instead to the psychological impact of Burden’s performances.

I certainly understand that sentiment intellectually and emotionally, but I didn’t witness Burden’s 1970s performances, such as “Trans-Fixed” (for which he had himself nailed to the back of a Volkswagen Beetle) or “Shoot” (for which he had an assistant discharge a firearm into his arm). I only know about them through photographic reproductions and other people’s writings. And seen from a distance there’s often more than a little manliness accompanying Burden’s pushing the limits of the human body, discussed the same way guys at the gym might talk about bench pressing 400 pounds or something.

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That sports comparison is a little glib, but it is another area where “extreme” is used as a genre qualifier, and typically one that suggests an extra layer of danger, intensity, or some other supposedly “manly” feature. This sense of pushing masculinity in some way has run through the avant-garde since the beginning: recall the proud bigotry in F.T. Marinetti’s 1909 Futurist Manifesto and its specious claims: “We want to glorify war—the only cure for the world—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.”

Robert Sweeny, in “This Performance Art is for the Birds: Jackass, ‘Extreme’ Sports, and the De(con)struction of Gender,” published in a 2008 issue of Studies in Art Education: A Journal of Issues and Research (PDF), taps into this sense of cathartic masculinity as an element of performance art. By putting Johnny Knoxville and his Jackass crew in the same sphere as Burden and McCarthy, he wonders: “Do white men, as a privileged group, have the ability to use self-destruction as either a metaphor, or as entertainment, where other groups might not?”

It’s a reasonable question, and similar ones continue to swim through my head, ever since I spent time in the room Walker organized. Does “avant-garde” have a gender? Yes, technically it’s a feminine noun in French, but like many dyads formed by the union of one masculine (“avant”) and one feminine (“garde”) member, the female tends to get overshadowed until all that’s left is the male. It’s a situation Sweeny explores in performance art through his look at Jackass, and it’s an assumption Rosemary Overell’s takes as a given in “‘[I] hate girls and emo[tion]s’: Negotiating masculinity in grindcore music” that appeared in a 2011 issue of Popular Music History. In a point of view as nuanced as the male audience identification with female characters that Carol Clover makes in Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (see Clover’s “Her Body, Himself” for a good refresher), Overell writes that “feeling brutal” is an idea that defines the sensibility for members of a grindcore music community in Melbourne, Australia, noting that “feeling brutal” in metal music “connotes masculine violence.” She finds that the aesthetic affect of experiencing the music produces an emotive reaction that isn’t as easily codified as violent or masculine.

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That’s a wonky way to get at the notion that Organized By Elspeth Walker might not be as knee-slap a laugh at dudes who measure their manliness in underground extreme noise music or the packs of Pall Malls presented on the bookshelf in the gallery. Walker possesses a savvy understanding of the social construction of identity—see her Video Drag project—and the longer I stood in the gallery the more funny I thought it was and the more worried I became, especially after I bent down to take a look at the books arranged on the bookshelf. There I found Rick Moody’s metafictional sci-fi adventure and Kurt Vonnegut homage The Four Fingers of Death, Norman Mailer’s true-crime saga of Gary Gilmore’s death sentence in The Executioner’s Song, Carl Jung’s stab at pop psychology Man and His Symbols, Cormac McCarthy’s baroquely grisly tale of sociopathic alienation Child of God.

I may have known guys who decorated their rooms in a group house this pretentiously. Hell, given that I’ve owned all of those books before, this man-cave could have been my room at some point in time. Maybe. Surely I wasn’t such a wanton tool about it. Was I?

Arlene Raven—that Baltimore-born, Johns Hopkins-educated critic and renegade who passed away in 2006—ingeniously used the idea of the archaic smile, the lip configuration found on Greek statuary to suggest life, as a way to explore women’s experiences as artists in a 1992 essay for Ms. magazine. She locates the smile “somewhere between a simper and a snicker,” noting that it doesn’t “convey the pleasures generally signaled by upturned lips.” It’s a bodily manifestation of gender difference tension in her essay, and Elspeth Walker keenly displaces that tension outward with items, ideas, and moods she organizes into Organized By Elspeth Walker. Her room eventually put the archaic smile on my face, trapping me somewhere between assuming I know what she was making fun of and worried that the gender-based assumptions I’m making to get the joke might mean I’m the one she’s playing it on.

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* Author Bret McCabe is a haphazard tweeter, epic-fail blogger, and a Baltimore-based arts and culture writer.

** Photos by David Armacost