What is a boy scout in 2013? Does anyone care? Outside of the antiquated machismo related to insecurity toward gender and sexuality, the boy scout is less of a cultural force and more of a symbol of classic American boyhood. This image of scouts is largely attributed to artist Normal Rockwell‘s visualizing of them and his work with by-boy-scouts-for-boy-scouts publication Boy’s Life. But what do boy scouts look now? That’s what curators Andrew Pogany and Ben Lee Ritchie Handler wanted to know. They tasked twenty-one local artists to examine Rockwell’s work to create a new visual vocabulary–perhaps even an idealized vocabulary–for viewing boy scouts in 2013. The resulting body of work is Good Intentions, a group show at Subliminal Projects in Echo Park.
The show starts with a wall of Rockwell’s prints, these innocent and fantasy soaked ideas of what it means to be a young man in America. There’s an honest charm to them and, upon further inspection, an inherent sex appeal since these boys are perfect, both physically and mentally. These images are touchstones for the show and define an aesthetic begging to be fucked with. The show smartly takes Rockwell’s scouts and pokes them, prods them, rims them, and rips them apart.
You dive into these new imaginings of scouting immediately as you turn right into the first room. Kim Buzzelli-Hosford’s bright and sexually political piece jumps out at you with dripping colors and lyrics from Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” a mark that feels torn from an alternative, queer universe Scout Motto. Christine Wang’s irreverent, sexually and socially taboo anime/Rockwellian mash-up spins off from Buzzelli-Hosford as one of the classic boys feeds an anime fetish girl. On the opposite side of the room, Alika Cooper‘s quiet, fabric based profile of a scout adds to the conversation as the piece is made using quilting and sewing materials, two domesticated practices that are not available as merit badges.
Erin Burrell‘s outing of scouting, Eric Yahnker’s Liberace cameo scout scene, and Duane Paul’s huge sculpture of various colored, fragmented scouts have similar effects. Paul’s piece hints at a less overt theme in the show, one that gets outside of the organization’s anti-gay agenda: minorities in American boy scouts have only existed on the margins. His colorful and quietly confrontational figures hit every element of the show–rainbows, black bodies, white bodies, broken bodies, sexualized bodies–without flamboyantly expressing these concepts. Noah Davis’ Black Boy Scout and Melissa Huddleston’s female subjected Jeepers echo this, zooming in on subjects so obviously absent in scouting lore. They remind of Rockwell’s non-scouting, Golden Rule work. If Norman Rockwell knew then what we all know now of scouting, he might not have even participated in inadvertently branding the boy scout identity.
Reflecting on my own thirteen years of boy scouting, it’s hard to find the current scouts in any of these images, because scouting as a concept has become a distant interest for the nation. Life isn’t simple anymore, and tying a square knot is not as absolutely necessary in daily life. The organization is kind of a joke now and–despite their political affiliations and overly conservative tendencies–they are largely irrelevant. There’s a reason why my fellow scouts and I were embarrassed to admit we were scouts in high school: no one cares about them. They represent a past idea of what it means to be an American child–and it’s embarrassing to have any relationship to them. Good Intentions acts as a bonfire for scouts, setting the concept of them ablaze to grow into something that could actually be necessary for America today.
Good Intentions will be on view at Subliminal Projects through July 20. Note that all sales of artwork and catalogs benefit Free Arts for Abused Children.. There will also be Free Arts workshop June 29 with Vanessa Prager and a July 18 catalogue release party. Subliminal Projects is located at 1331 W. Sunset Blvd. Get more information on the show here.