While my obsession is with adolescence generally it is the direct erotic dimensions of the boy which transfixes my attention. The beauty and vulnerability of the adolescent is emphasised and often exaggerated by these paintings. While the young girl is traditionally accepted as the universal erotic symbol, I want to de-naturalise this doctrine or tenet and point up how unused we are to seeing the image of the boy. The male gender of the subject is disturbing to many and is remarked upon by most viewers while the obvious gender role reversal goes unnoticed.
The changing politics of gender and social issues to do with the way our culture represents female adolescents in art and popular culture are my abiding concern. It was this political issue which instigated my first series of digital prints of male subjects in 1996. It was the disproportionate reaction to this series of very small images which encouraged me pursue this issue.
For more indepth discussion on these issues see interview below.
GF: Why do you make images of boys?
CH: I get very frustrated that still, the most overwhelming reaction to the work is this acute awareness of their male gender. This is by far the most common question. I have been making images of boys for about 6 years now, but initially it was this wierd reaction that made me keep doing this sort of work.
GF: You're a reactionary?
CH: Yes I know its a dirty word but initially I suppose I was. Now I'm just obsessed.
GF: I was surprised to find that a woman artist would do paintings like these.
CH: I admit that if the subjects were girls, women or men you still would have been surprised. Most people presume a male artist when they see my work.
GF: Aren't you a bit defensive?
CH: Yes I suppose I get a bit sick of the reaction, but even a lecturer at Uni thought I must be a guy when she saw my work.
GF: Aren't you concerned that your painting will be fodder for paedophiles?
CH: This is the second most common question I am asked about my work. Again I suggest to you that this would not be a question if the paintings were of girls. I think this question always arises because there is a gross misconception in the general public that boys are almost the exclusive victims and that all paedophiles are homosexual. The fact is that most victims are girls and by far most paedophiles are heterosexual men. I blame the media for this, a handful of paedophiles who have preyed on boys have become household names thanks to the media. I wish as much fuss and publicity were given to the countless rapes and abuse of girls that goes on every day.
CH: Well no. I have a broad audience and all kinds of people have bought the work. And again I think this is a bad misconception and due to ignorance. No offence, it is interesting, I did have a conversation with a male art collector who is homosexual. He likes and understands my work, but expressed that he couldn't possible hang any of the nude images in his home for fear of being branded a paedophile.
GF: But this doesn't explain these paintings.
CH: Well no but it is all these things that go towards the initial reason I started to make them. That is why I talk so much about the gaze. The relationship with the audience is where the art happens. Even if it does get a bit political sometimes. But that is why I no longer make nudes or use digital photographic imagery. The art was overwhelmed by the politics.
GF: How do you mean?
CH: Well I mean that the art-ness of the work did not enter the equation at all. It was all about the issues we've discussed and I want to make art about my obsession. This subject matter is my obsession, this is what I do. At least now there is less of that. Now that I'm making painterly paintings and there are no penises to be seen.
GF: When did you start making this sort of work?
CH: Initially my work was reactionary. I made simple gender transformations of images of girls I found in popular culture. I still often use images of girls as source material as it is difficult to find images of boys.
My concern was and still is that there is a gender imbalance in imagery of the body. For my first work in this area I scanned paintings of Balthus's young girls into the computer and changed their gender. I gave them a haircut and put penises on them. Suddenly these paintings, loved by even the most traditional conservative became shocking to a similar audience despite the tiny size of the prints. Why was this? You tell me. One minute the paintings are about art the next they are about paedophilia.
GF: But what if I say two wrongs don't make a right?
CH: Well I know that, but in a way I'm not saying that it is wrong to make images of nude girls etc. I am concerned that there is a double standard and what does this say about the way our culture regards girls and women. For example I can go to books shops and see dozens of books full of nude girls and women. I'm not talking about the hundreds of porno magazines in Newsagencies. I'm talking about sophisticated art photography. There are now a few equivalent books of men but they all have six packs and muscles, but none with images of boys. Anyway I am not interested in using the female body to reinforce old stereotypes and I am not interested in power images of men.
CH: Yes there are some books on his work available in Australia. Mostly they are wrapped in plastic and on the top shelf or in a cabinet, but yes that is an example of nude male photography, with no emphasis on youth or boys. But then we could talk about the withdrawal of NEA funding from any museum which shows his work in the USA. But yes his work is in most major collections.
GF: What examples are there of nude photography of girls or young girls?
CH: Sally Mann, Jock Sturges, Nobuyoshi Araki.
Sally Mann has only published one photograph of her son Emmit in the nude. For some reason his head was out of view. While her daughters are photographed full frontal in all sorts of poses.
Nobuyoshi often poses girls and women tied with ropes, stuffed in boxes, or glass tanks, hanging upside down, partially dressed in school uniform with no underpants, often bloodied or bruised. His work has been collected by and shown in most major museum galleries around the world. He has published several books which have been available here.
Jock Sturges photographs healthy wholesome girls aged about 4 to 20 in the nude usually in natural surrounding. His Scandinavian health nudist are of both genders and occasionally a boy does appears in the picture, in the distance.
GF: Why do you think this is the case?
CH: This is because most audiences are completely accustomed to an unquestioned use of the female body in art and other visual media. In my thesis I talked about the way male artist have used women's bodies to take out their angst. Furthermore most audiences of both genders assume a male viewer and a male artist. I do think it is the overarching homophobia in our culture that causes these fears. But it is a worry to me that our society is more concerned to protect boys than girls.
For example the defence every time there is a billboard which is offensive to women's groups, that images don't do anything. The Joico Hair Product ad was a case; a huge billboard series of two attractive and very young girls pulling on their underpants. The defence was that this ad would not encourage men to harm girls, that this ad did nothing to hurt the equality of girls and women in our society. The billboards stayed up. Do you think that a picture of two 15 year old boys pulling on their underpants would not have stayed up there for 5 minutes. If images don't cause or reinforce social constructions why is advertising imagery so successful.