At first blush, the image of a scrawny young man dry-humping a plush Snoopy doll seems like an effort to shock.
The model in the black-and-white large-scale photo is nude, his body shaven and rail-thin. His eyes are downcast and disinterested. His jutting collarbones are suggestive of the heroin chic that plagued fashion photography of the Nineties.
The picture is one of 13 in photographer Melissa Rodwell's "The Boys Collection," on display at the In-Dependent Gallery Space inside Wynwood's District Lab studios.
The artist, who worked in fashion photography for nearly two decades, has spent the past three years on the project, shooting a series of images of erotically fetishized young men that are a far cry from old-fangled beefcake. Instead the work is intended as a celebration of youthful masculinity, as well as a critique on objectification.
Rodwell, who has shot her fair share of nymphets in come-hither fashion spreads for the glossies, sets her gun sights on boys' bodies as the object of feminine desire.
Her images are infused with a slick veneer of glam rock and homoeroticism, reminiscent of the work Helmut Newton or Guy Bourdin might have snapped for Vogue in the Seventies. One can't help but wonder, though, just what type of women these shots are meant to appeal to, other than readers of trashy teen magazines.
Bones depicts a rickety-armed lad with a bare pullet torso and a shag mop. Wearing a beaded scarf around his neck, he clutches his belt with a faux sullen attitude and flashes a Mick Jagger pout, but he lacks the raw sexual energy of the rock star: all pose sans the menace. After Britney bared her cooter to the paps, who's supposed to get in a froth over a flash of Brillo-like pubes?
In the more daring Chicago on the Nod, Rodwell dolls up one of her weedy wastrels in a spaghetti-strap cocktail dress and stiletto heels and poses him in front of a window. The boy, who appears somewhat drug-addled, could have cashed in as a body double for Sixties Brit supermodel Twiggy. The sunlight pouring through the window cloaks him in an angelic, ethereal glow as one of his nipples plays peek-a-boo from behind a wardrobe malfunction.
The problem is that, in a society drunk on the titillating imagery of youth culture that's become old hat in the media, Rodwell's photographs seem more a tease than a TKO. They lack the brutal honesty and beauty of, say, a Larry Clark, whose subversive photos of youthful subcultures packed a more visceral wallop. Or of a Terry Richardson, whose images often depict more graphically sexual subject matter.
In 1993, Rodwell's first major exhibit, featuring nude portraits of then-16-year-old actress Monet Mazur, generated some controversy. The following year, her solo show in Sydney, Australia, starkly documented local heroin addicts in one of the city's notorious drug districts.
That was during the height of the heroin-chic craze, which artist Nan Goldin has been credited with launching, and which Calvin Klein exploited in the fashion trade, making Kate Moss a household name.
While vestiges of pale skin, bony carapaces, and hollow eyes appear in many of Rodwell's images, they lack the grittiness of Goldin's haunting imagery. By comparison, Rodwell's stab at provoking through artificial nihilism rings like a cheap car alarm. For the most part, these models remain lust bunnies under her practiced gaze.
A work titled Hollywood Motel, hinting at an illicit encounter at a seedy hot-sheet dive between two of Rodwell's pretty-boy models, is so posed and hyperstylized it might be more at home in a fashion spread for Dazed & Confused magazine. These are definitely not Clark's rapine street hustlers.
Rodwell's C-prints mounted on Plexiglas are indeed beautiful, technically well executed, and often arresting. But they also come across as overly self-conscious.
In the end, Rodwell's androgynous lady-killers seem to be more of the same adolescent fetishizing that has become part and parcel of the exhibitionist age.
The good news is that Ignacio Gurruchaga, In-Dependent Gallery's owner, is determined to make photography more accessible to collectors by offering works in the $1,000 range.
Gurruchaga, a photographer himself, operated District Lab in South Beach for six years before moving to Wynwood in early 2007.
With several couches, a funky coffee table, and a bar inside the space, his gallery exudes a loungelike vibe and typically draws hundreds of spectators during Wynwood's monthly art crawl.
"The space allows me to organize experimental events here," Gurruchaga says, adding he plans to focus exclusively on photography in his gallery.
He points to a huge 19-panel photomural on an exterior wall that depicts a 360-degree-view of the crossroads of his corner space.
"That's Harold, who runs the body shop across the street," the affable Gurruchaga says. "That's the concrete truck from the company over there. That's the homeless guy and the mattress he sleeps on at night."
He's thrilled to have a creative playground outside his door, he adds. "I hosed the street down and used studio lighting for the shots." The amazing mural alone is well worth a visit to his gallery.