Is the bear-look little more than laziness about diets and shaving? Fat chance! As a new European art book called Bearflavoured reveals the seemingly sloven image of the bear does not represent a lack of aesthetics. In Bearflavoured more than 30 international artists ruminate on the ursine response to mainstream queer concepts of attractiveness based on build, age and laser electrolysis.
Body fat is at once the most obvious and contentious aspect of bear bodies. Identification as a bear may have once symbolized a social oasis where men weren’t judged for heftiness. That changed as the silhouette of the “muscle bear” — hairy but with decidedly different bulges — topped a hirsute hierarchy of beauty. Bearflavoured artists contest this cultural shift.
In broad strokes, the nudes of Russian painter Alexei Biryukoff feature very large men, focusing on their outsized bellies and asses to hugely erotic effect. The model used by environmental artist Timo Saarelma is big as a house — literally. Images of his outstretched chest and rounded torso, photographed against backgrounds of sea and wilderness, are mounted on backwoods cabins.
Performance artist Franko B first became known for letting his own blood and using it to paint his flesh during live performances. Over the years his body has gotten larger and progressively covered in tattoos. In “Don’t Leave Me this Way” B places his naked body on a pedestal. The artist sits, his skin marked with inked symbols, his fat uncut cock exposed, while a bank of bright lights increases in strength until the audience is forced to look away.
The question of bears and gender is an unsettled one. For all their flannel and overalls are bears radical for attempting to reject the plucked effeminacy of many gay men or do they merely represent a predictable expression of “traditional” masculinity?
Multimedia artist James Gobel raises the issue in clever ways. Some of the bears he depicts lounge around the house in track pants and football jerseys, others are foppish dandies whose beards, hair and eyebrows evoke ruffled chiffon. His work employs yarn and felt on canvas, using traditionally feminine textiles to represent and interrogate masculinity.
Swiss illustrator Ivo Habermacher’s vision is rich and strange. In his drawings bears become more than linebacker beauty queens: They transmute into infant succubi, knife-wielding rednecks and horny devils, hairy ogres in purple boots and bursting tighty-whities.
In the surreal work of Turin-based painter Tristan Coirgoit a bear’s asshole is presented as a trove of fertility. In “The Human Cannon,” at turns cartoonish and captivating, a bald nude bear reaches for the sky, straining to propel a chubby baby from his rectum.
Bearflavoured closes with a series of portraits of UK designer Simon Casey. The images explore familiar masculine tropes: the locker room, the log cabin, the lumberjack. The archetypically bearish Casey is undeniably handsome but the photo series lacks the complex challenges to be found in other parts of Bearflavoured.
Whether you seek burly beefcake or perverse provocation, Bearflavoured offers a wealth of stimulation from the rotund to the profound.