A trained architect, artist David Rohn works a day job at a local design studio, while at night he's a fixture on the South Beach drag scene. That admission in itself would hardly raise a penciled eyebrow on Washington Avenue, where transvestites have become as common as parking meters. But Rohn is an anomaly in the nocturnal world of gender illusion. His alter ego, Teddy Behr, is an unlikely king among queens. When Rohn dresses up, he doesn't adopt a female role. His character is a man, only he's the kind of guy parents raise their sons not to be: a moist-lipped, limp-wristed geek in a mismatched plaid suit who blinks behind thick eyeglasses. Sometimes he carries a purse.
"He's a wimp," Rohn fondly says of his creation. "Effeminate, sweet, and weak."
As a performance artist playing Teddy Behr, Rohn reveals a sensitive side of himself, indulging in behaviors considered unmasculine by the mores of society at large, as well as by the standards of the musclebound gay micro culture of Miami Beach. In his paintings and mixed-media sculpture, now on exhibit at the Washington Avenue club Swirl, Rohn further examines the accepted definitions of what it means to be a man.
A life-size papier-mƒche rhinoceros head constructed by the artist hangs above the bar at the entrance to the club, a laid-back patio lounge outfitted with Fifties furniture. Rohn, 45, who was raised in New Jersey and studied art and architecture in New York City and Paris, formerly exhibited at Bianca Lanza's now-defunct space on Jefferson Avenue. Since he is no longer represented by a gallery, he figured Swirl might be a good place to show his work. Located along SoBe's club row, on any night the scene of a collective identity crisis, Swirl is an apt venue for art that explores gender issues. And the bar's rec-room decor provides a fitting backdrop for Rohn's visual ruminations on hunting, fishing, sports, sex, and other "normal" components of a man's world.
The rhinoceros, a huge mounted fish, and a deer head are part of a group of papier-meche "trophies" on display. At first glance the newspaper animals are simply amusing; upon closer examination, however, the forms have a graceful sculptural presence that appears almost abstract, and they say more about men than about animals. Hunting has evolved from a means of survival into a barbaric form of male bonding and ego boosting. For all that the animals really matter in the hunting equation, they might as well be made out of paper. Rohn's fragile trophies point to the absurdity of hunting as a testosterone-fueled blood sport, exposing the cruel irony that, for men who hunt, "getting back to nature" means killing.
Out back, on the bar's covered patio, three papier-meche male dolls are mounted on a wall. One wears a suit, another is dressed as a policeman, and a third is a nondescript, Gumby-like eunuch. Slightly twisted, as if running (or perhaps writhing with pain or embarrassment), they are part of a series that also includes a bodybuilder, a man in a tuxedo, and a preppie in a tennis sweater, none of which are exhibited here. Rohn started making them as a response to the time-honored dictum that boys are not supposed to play with dolls. Unlike vacant-eyed Ken, rock-hard GI Joe, or other acceptable boy toys, these rather crude, faceless figures of male role models convey a range of human emotions. The policeman, for example, wears an imposing uniform, but he seems to shrink inside of it. He leans forward, arms outstretched, as if ready to come to a citizen's aid, but he's bent in an awkward position that suggests he's unsure of himself, uncomfortable, scared. While the artist pokes fun at masculine stereotypes, he also wants to reveal the weaker side of men and put it on display for everyone to see.
Several works in the show depict men's undergarments, including colorful portraits of jockstraps and underpants and a huge cloth sock. While these pop-art one-liners are adequately executed, they're not terribly original. A similar problem plagues another work, this one made from a man's dress shirt hung on a back wall. The artist has embroidered the back of the shirt, which faces the viewer, with pastel thread. The neat yellow and pink stitches form a seemingly abstract design that on closer inspection is revealed to be an erect penis. In this way Rohn associates the most potent image of masculinity with what's considered a womanly activity (embroidering) and feminine colors (pastels), a further effort to expose men's vulnerability. This idea is interesting, if a little forced, but it owes so much to the existing work of feminist artists such as Judy Chicago and Faith Ringgold that the finished product seems tired.
Rohn is a fine, perceptive painter, and he is at his best here in a group of works that are executed in the warm hues of early Renaissance art. Several of these belong to a series of paintings of dogs. Like the dolls, these have a kitsch element -- they recall velvet paintings of dogs playing poker -- but again the artist infuses them with emotion; he paints his pit bulls and bulldogs in stalwart three-quarter poses, like portraits of royal family members. The tough dogs personify tough guys, and he imparts an enigmatic humanness to them, depicting them with knowing grins and sloe eyes.