Martín Gutierrez Talks Mannequins and Drag Culture

Photographer, videographer, musician, costumer, set designer, producer; Martín Gutierrez fits many labels. Yet there’s one that the artist makes a continuous attempt to shatter: gender. Born male to an American mother and Guatemalan father, Martín (pronounced Martine) walks the line between feminine and masculine in both their personal life and their work. I use “their” here for precisely that reason; Martín’s is not an identity that subscribes to society’s bifurcated definition of gender. “His” or “her” used exclusively would be too binding. Instead, the artist moves fluidly between the two, using their given name as a photographer and the alter ego “Martine” for their music. The artist’s second solo show at Ryan Lee Gallery, “Can She Hear You,” explores this fluidity in depth with two new photo series Line Ups and Girl Friends, three new music videos, and a sight specific installation. Whitewall met up with the artist to discuss process, mannequins, and drag culture.

WHITEWALL: You’ve talked about having your name mispronounced over time, and that growing up, people often thought before meeting you, that you were a French girl when you were actually a Spanish boy. Has that experience affected your relationship to gender or led to the gender bending in your work?

MARTÍN GUTIERERZ: I feel like with the name stuff, I was so unaware of [it] growing up. It was just over [my] head, and it wasn’t a big deal. Martín, having it be an accent over the “I,” I couldn’t even say it that way, so I couldn’t expect other people to say it that way either. All I knew was I was not Martin. And I think a lot of people would just put the “e” at the end, and in my mind it was just to help them with pronunciation. I didn’t see it associating my name with a different gender at all.

WW: You’ve spoken about dressing in drag, which itself is a performance of gender, often with a very thoroughly developed female character. Has that experience and that world affected this character of Martine?

MG: I feel like initially, making Martine with an “e” was just for that same reason: pronunciation. I didn’t want people who I couldn’t have this conversation with to be looking me up online and being like, “Have you heard Martin’s music?” That just feels wrong. So the “e” happened, and then I think that definitely informed [the idea that] this could be something that isn’t me completely. I think of this character as being another way of living my life. It’s something that I see branching off from choices I could have made but didn’t growing up.

I didn’t have enough of a [drag] persona that was separate from myself, and part of it was that I wasn’t cutting enough, and I couldn’t throw shade, and I partly didn’t want to throw shade. I was like, “I just want to perform.” There were these girls that would come up to me, men, and they would be like, “You’re not a drag queen,” and I’m like, “Oh, I’m not?” and they’re like, “No. You’re a female impersonator.” I remember doing a show and being there early, and the other girls in the bathroom looking at me and being like, “Is that your real hair?” and being like, “Oh yes, yeah it is,” and [having them] basically threaten to cut it off. That was dangerous and exciting, but I was like, “I guess this isn’t my world.”

There are a lot of club references [in the work], especially because when I started doing drag, it was in nightclubs. And it would also blend over into nights that weren’t for drag queens because when I was working there, a lot of straight men thought I was a woman. I was a go-go dancer or a cage dancer. So in this [Girl Friends] series it’s definitely prevalent.

WW: You’ve said that you try to leave your photographs ambiguous enough so that the viewer can insert a narrative of his/her/their own, but with a project like Girl Friends, do you create an internal narrative for yourself to guide the costumes, set, etc.?  

MG: Definitely. For me, everything starts with an era. I’m very nostalgic and romantic. I see these being different eras, and that informs the rules that were part of gender boundaries in those eras, and what women were allowed to do, or what was a big deal that they weren’t supposed to do. Then it also informs the hair and the dressing and the location. Most of my mannequins actually mimic the time periods. They’re really old, and now in some ways one-of-a-kind because they’re not manufactured anymore for the most part. Three were made in the 60s and the 70s, one is from the 50s, and I think two are from the 90s.

[These images] are so tied to film. I thought of them as kind of like a film narrative, so thinking about these photos being scenes, and wanting there to be that close-up moment and wanting there to be a landscape. But they’re in Vegas for me, I feel like they’re in Vegas.

WW: You’ve played with the concept of dolls or mannequins before with your photo series Real Dolls – in that case sex dolls – would you say that Line Ups and Girl Friends build on that exploration? What does it mean to you to play with that dichotomy between fake versus real?  

MG: Mannequins are so interesting. They’re so loaded already with all this idealist beauty and a lack of identity. They’re like these empty vessels that you don’t interact with. But I guess that initially wasn’t my interest in using them at all. My first mannequin I got in high school and it was just my own love of dolls as an individual. After that people were like “Oh, Martín’s creepy and likes mannequins,” so they became gifts if people came across them from stores that were closing. So slowly I’ve been collecting and now I have six. It needs to stop. Six I think is the cap [laughs].

WW: Especially with the Line Ups series, the mannequins really look life-like and choreographed; it’s difficult to pick you out of the group.

MG: Totally, each picture had its own rehearsal and then the actual performance of the picture. All of the Line Ups are actually within the same studio, my studio in Bed-Stuy. Only one is artificial lighting, the rest are just natural light, so [it was about] waiting for the sun to do certain magical things. Basically waiting for magic, and just arranging them within camera because I don’t use any Photoshop. Compositionally, [I’m] clustering it so that the room looks full and feels like there is this anticipation, or everyone’s bored, just trying to make an energy happen.

Once I’m satisfied, the rest of the day I’ll probably do costuming and any kind of set draping, whether it’s making that bourgeois canopy, or making that silvery, night club, glass room. And then the next day is usually when I’ll shoot and that whole day is about my own transformation and working with the camera with timer.

WW: In terms of costumes and sets, can you describe your process a bit?

MG: For Rossella and Palma, all the costumes are my great aunt’s from my mom’s side,. Then as it grew, I started Tess and Nomi and Anita and Marie at the same time. [For] Anita and Marie a lot of the clothes are mine, and I would wear them on a regular basis, and for Tess and Nomi I definitely had to look in sex shops and on eBay. I feel like I have a very clear picture of what I want most of the time and if I’m in a bind, I’ll make what I have work, and pin it or cut something up. All of those outfits [in the Line Ups series] for the most part are plastic and a lot of fabric and everything is very staged. I was talking about how they’ll be moved into a composition, and then once I’m dressing them there’s a front and a back to the image, and so everything that isn’t facing the camera is jerry rigged, it’s like tape and bubblegum holding everything together, and my job is just to make it seem effortless.

WW: You studied printmaking at RISD, and you had a theatre and dance background from high school, but now your work encompasses photography, costumes, sets, filming, music production, etc., and you have autonomy over the entire process. How have you honed the many skills your work puts on display?

MG: I don’t really know. I guess [I’m like] like, “Well duh, how else would I make this image if I wasn’t doing the hair and the makeup and I wasn’t editing it later?” I don’t have a team of people, and I guess that goes with being poor [laughs]. I was given a video camera really early on and I was always making movies with friends and babysitters and relatives. I think it’s just been practice and without doing it on purpose it’s really honed my skills to an aesthetic that I find attractive. Now I can really predict what it will look like or what my boundaries will be and I can focus on executing.

 

“Can She Hear You” is on view at Ryan Lee Gallery in New York through May 9.

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