Since the age of 16, John Arsenault has been taking pictures of himself. Three decades later, his self-portraits tell the story of his experiences as a gay man, and comment upon society at large.
Arsenault grew up in northern Massachusetts, moved to Boston, then to New York City to pursue a BFA at the School of Visual Arts. It was in New York that his work turned to an “outlandish and absurd, wild and exotic” record of his life, writes ClampArt in the press release for “American Queen, American Dream: 30 Years of Self Portraits by John Arsenault.” On view through January 4, the exhibition is Arsenault’s 6th show at the gallery.
With an eye for the unexpected and exaggerated, Arsenault constructs scenarios that explore facets of his personal relationships, his sexuality, and his identity. He usually photographs himself shirtless or naked. There’s a lot of fur, tight shorts and lounging on nice furniture. At turns playful and serious, in the images we see the proliferation of his tattoos and the soft face of his youth evolve into a chiseled jaw line. The titles tell us that he left New York for Palm Springs, Los Angeles and Provincetown. The earliest photographs reveal periods of longing, heartbreak and vulnerability, while the later images are a nuanced look at the dynamics of his marriage.
A recurring symbol in Arsenault’s photographs is the American flag. He uses it to represent his “claim to his rights and citizenry” despite the efforts of other Americans to deny him those rights, explains ClampArt. We see the flag on the wall, on boxing gloves worn by two men embracing, and suggestively –– pointedly –– held in Arsenault’s mouth in an image simply titled, “Swallow.”
Writer Dan Halm has said of Arsenault’s work, “By tackling timely social issues in his over-the-top photographs, Arsenault not only casts a spotlight on these issues but at the same time delves into his own personal history.”
“American Queen, American Dream: 30 Years of Self Portraits by John Arsenault” reveals a body of work that is honest, full of humor, and reflective of a vital space in the fabric of America.