Exhibitions

Lilly McElroy (2008)

Artists

Lilly McElroy

Chicago Free Press by Paul Varnell

Rare, I suppose, is the man who has not at some point had a woman—through lust, desperation or otherwise—“throw herself” at him. It can be an odd experience.

Lilly McElroy, an attractive, petite 28-year-old performance artist, takes the expression literally and creates a series of photographs of her actually “throwing herself” at men in various bars. The results are simultaneously amusing, disconcerting and oddly touching.

The photographs are not spontaneous, of course. McElroy placed advertisements on Craigslist seeking men who would agree to meet her at bars and let her throw herself at them.

In a way the large scale photographs all document the same phenomenon: McElroy’s violating the usual gender stereotypes of the passive female and the aggressive male. The awkwardness and uncertainty of the situation are evident in photograph after photograph. Will the man catch her, is he comfortable with the situation, will she hurt herself? Concerns that normally refer to the emotional aspects of such an approach at a bar are here evident in visibly physical form.

The photographs are all the same phenomenon but it is in the small details where they differ that their interest particularly lies.

The men, different in each photograph, differ in their response to the situation and in their ability to “catch” McElroy as she hurtles through the air toward them. Some of the men seem prepared to catch her, grabbing her as she reaches them. Others just put out their arms and seem to count on McElroy to latch onto them. One not-very-robust man looks completely nonplused by the situation and leaves his arms down at his side. Yet another, seeming somewhat fearful, keeps his eyes tightly shut.

Interestingly, two of the men McElroy throws herself at are African-American, a pointed reversal of the ancient stereotype of the sexually aggressive black male—a stereotype that still arouses anxieties, as witness the protests over Vogue magazine’s current cover with a fierce-looking basketball player, LeBron James, grabbing an ecstatic-looking white model.

Not only do the dynamics of the throwing and catching differ, so do the background details caught in the picture. Most of the bar patrons sit quietly at the bar or at their tables, seemingly oblivious to what is going on, although in one photograph several people seated at nearby tables do seem to be watching the action. In another photo, the bartender, framed in the narrow space between McElroy and her catcher, is laughing as he watches what is going on, and in a third photo a female bar patron is clearly watching out of the corner of her eye.

Taken as a whole, the photographs of a physically forward woman and a more passive man satirize traditional social roles much as does, say, Aristophanes’ play “The Assembly of Women,” but in the end they do not really subvert the traditional roles. They play with the roles but—whatever McElroy’s intention—by so exaggerating the opposite possibility and making it seem ludicrous, they leave the traditional roles undamaged and unchallenged.

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