Tom Ford Flips the Script on the Gender Binary

Arts & Culture

BY ANDREW FABIAN SRQ DAILY FRIDAY WEEKEND EDITION FRIDAY JUN 26, 2020

If art is a product of its times, it stands to reason its aesthetics ought to move with it. When it comes to the portrayal of male and female figures in particular, contemporary art screams for the dissolution of Classical norms that depicts women as passive objects while men stand in power poses that accentuate their muscular physiques. To that end, self-taught artist Tom Ford has amassed a body of work that attempts to upend the traditional gender binary and gives viewers something subtly subversive, faintly fun and altogether timely.

That he accomplishes this comes at least partially from a lack of formal training that would have introduced him to Classic gender depictions. He would only have used a ball point pen or pencil for most of his early childhood, but “later on, my mom bought me a cheap set of watercolor paint from the local 5 and 10 store,” he says. From there, he painted anything he saw, including the Marlboro Man. “I guess I always had an interest in painting beautiful men,” he says before chuckling. Today, watercolors comprise one small part of his multi-medium output, which includes acrylics, jewelry and even painted palm fronds. “If you walk into my little art room, it wouldn’t look like all the work was created by one person,” he says, “but I typically do male figures in watercolor because I think the male body calls for it.”

At first glance, the watercolor medium itself seems at odds with traditional expectations of the male figure. Watercolors can be delicate and shy where male figures are often accentuated for their angular, sinewy lines. When Ford combines the two, the final product is a male figure that appears submissive or vulnerable. The painting above features a dear friend of Ford’s with his back to the viewer, his body relaxed and seeming to blend with the soft expanse of the landscape within his gaze. It all lends itself to a sense of repose often reserved for maidens sprawled out on couches or chairs.

His acrylic work also upends traditional representations of women. “I think that I always saw women as being more powerful,” says Ford, and some of his portrait work depicts women with all the tamed ferocity of an apex predator at rest. Recently, Ford completed a study of Joan Crawford in “Sudden Fear,” a gun in hand firing off-canvas, a heightened sense of purpose bristling in her face. Another acrylic portrait depicts Sophia Loren staring at the viewer through a pair of sunglasses “as if she had a bit of a bad day and wanted to take it out on the nearest person,” writes Ford in its description. And as sexuality and gender continue to be expressed in increasingly diverse ways, Ford hopes he can continue to reflect the currents. “I’ve always known I’m a cisman who loves men,” he says, “but I’m always trying to open my mind to other iterations of gender and sexuality.” 

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