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-mche 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.
Rohn also paints iconic portraits of lonely-looking prizefighters and football players, and on a wall at the back of the club's patio hangs a small painting of a trout fisherman. The man stands in the middle of the picture against a light sienna background. He's a bit out of focus, and his legs have been cut off at the knee, obscured by the water in which he stands. The man's fishing rod juts out from below his waist like an erection, and he wears a serene expression. The image is suggestive, and in the manner of Edward Hopper's evocative landscapes it provokes the viewer to wonder what's going on beyond what's overtly depicted. In this exceptional painting, as in the rest of the show, Rohn laughs at his maleness and salutes the sensitive side of men.
While David Rohn examines established gender boundaries, Jamie Robinson photographs people who ignore the rules altogether. Her new series of works, "Gender Ambiguity," brings new meaning to that much-touted Miami term "diversity." Her girls in combat boots, boys in corsets, and (is that a girl or a boy?) androgynes with nipple rings are what the phony, posing cast of Calvin Klein's CK ad campaign unsuccessfully attempted to capture. A former television camerawoman, Robinson makes studio pictures with the spontaneous flavor of photojournalism. Her subjects, beautiful and proud, look you right in the eye.
Robinson is currently working on a proposal for South Beach Divas, a book of photos that she has taken over the past few years of hometown drag queens. Meanwhile, a show of her photographs, which can be seen by appointment, is currently on display in her studio on NE 36th Street. Call her at 576-3634.
Artwork by David Rohn. Through June 7. Swirl, 1049 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 673-7530.
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