Navigating Desire and Male Beauty in “My Dream Boat,” a New York Group Show

Jul 28, 2016 12:16AM

By many accounts, it was the Italian-Canadian musician Guy Lombardo who, in 1936, coined (or at least popularized) the phrase “dream boat.” “When my dream boat comes home / Then my dreams no more will roam,” he sang.

In the decades since, its usage has changed somewhat. In Lombardo’s original song, the object of his affection was evidently a woman, but today, dreamboat usually refers to a man. (Also, somewhere along the line, the phrase became one word instead of two.)

What hasn’t changed is the implication of desire, of yearning for someone whose desirability is proportional to his unattainability. That yearning is at the heart of “My Dream Boat,” a group show currently showing at Envoy Enterprises in New York.

In simplest terms, the exhibition is teeming with portraits of handsome men. In work by the French photographer Nicolas Wagner, the male subjects are modern versions of Adonis: shirtless, chiseled, and impressively cheekboned.

There’s something godlike to the men of Leni Riefenstahl’s portraiture, too. Athletes in her “1936 Olympic Games” series (1937) are timelessly beautiful, as if the photographs were taken yesterday. After all, perfect Aryan masculinity was crucial to the Third Reich. Still other works in the show, these in WTD2 (2001–2016) by Prince R (aka HRH PR), feature signed celebrity snapshots of popular sex symbols such as Brad Pitt, Mick Jagger, and Denzel Washington.

“My Dream Boat” goes on to offer a wider range of physical specimens, as with the pale, pubescent boys of Donatien Veismann’s Untitled (2010). And then there’s the centerpiece of the show, another Wagner photograph. This one doesn’t feature a man, however, but a boat aptly named “My Dream.”

So, the viewer might start to wonder, is this exhibition truly a showcase of male beauty? Or is it a wry subversion of the homosexual male gaze? Perhaps, but the show delves deeper. This isn’t just a feast for the eyes; it’s a meditation on desire. The dreamboat (in this case, the floating version) symbolizes the search for and, god willing, attainment of beauty and the good life. We all want something—someone—beautiful, and sometimes we’re lucky enough to get it.

But Wagner’s photographic series “Untitled (Bastien)” (2011) takes a few more steps. The images depict the boot-clad feet of a stylish man ascending a staircase, possibly on his way out, as if the dreamboat arrived but now departs. It’s a hint of the fleeting nature of romantic affairs and of desire itself. What happens, Wagner seems to ask, when you get the dreamboat you always dreamed of? Can you keep it? Do you even want it anymore? Does it want you back?

—Bridget Gleeson

My Dream Boat” is on view at Envoy Enterprises, New York, Jul. 1–Aug. 5, 2016.

Follow Envoy Enterprises on Artsy.