“It’s not like I was born a feminist and always knew that there was some problem with beauty pageants,” says Lisa Wainwright, an art historian at the School of the Art Institute. “I bought so many Barbies–I performed my femininity through my Barbie dolls.” And she watched beauty pageants on TV. “I liked the spectacle of it, the man in the tuxedo, this sweeping stage, and 50 girls–all my Barbie dolls come alive.” By the time she got to college she thought the contests were ridiculous, but she still had a Princess Diana fascination and had noticed that she was being judged by the criteria used for pageant contestants: “her beauty, her evening wear, her talents, her social platform.”

When the Miss USA pageant announced it would be coming to Gary, Indiana, this year–pageant co-owner Donald Trump also owns a Gary casino–members of the fine arts and women’s studies faculties at Indiana University’s Gary campus were concerned, and one of them asked Wainwright, who had curated shows on gender issues, to put together an exhibition. “I thought it pretty strange that Miss USA will rise out of the ashes of Gary,” she says. “In my mind, Gary is about men and steel, so I thought I should switch the gender. Perhaps that would get people thinking about some of the issues that pertain to a female beauty pageant, but from another angle.”

The resulting exhibition, “From Steel to Flesh,” with 21 artists, mostly Chicagoans, focuses on male bodies and concepts of masculinity. There are paintings of penises and photos of bodybuilders–and a quotation from Martin Luther King Jr. on the dignity of labor hangs over the building entrance. Yet Wainwright curated the show with a beauty pageant in mind. “I wanted to assemble works that could be placed in the categories that the contestants have to work on,” she says. “I wanted beautiful bodies, so there are homoerotic drawings by Tom of Finland alongside photographs of steelworkers by Stephen Szoradi.” Alan Labb’s photograph of a line of six large-bellied men, Girth, represents an alternative view of physical beauty. Jennifer Reeder’s video of construction workers fits into the category of talent, as do Daniel Oliver’s mixed-media pieces, which include real sports trophies.

Other works focus on issues, a reference to the social platforms real contestants are required to choose. Adam Brooks’s Beef Cake/Cheese Cake invites the viewer to take a free button printed with that text, each phrase upside-down relative to the other, making the message either “your predilection or self-description.” Sally Alatalo’s sculptural object Beauty Contest includes 15 sashes she made that carry labels such as “Mr. Industrial Utopia” and “Mr. Magic City,” taken from phrases that were used to describe Gary in its early years. At the opening, each of the artists attending will wear one.

Beauty pageants, Wainwright points out, were once openly racist; as late as the 1930s contestants had to supply genealogical information. Even today African-Americans in pageants are usually lighter skinned. As an acknowledgment of this problem, most of the men in this show are white, though Barbara DeGenevieve interviewed nine African-American men in Gary for her video MR. USA. “I decided I wanted to have the people of Gary comment about the pageant,” she says. “It’s a town that is extremely economically depressed. I started the interview process by going to bars with a female assistant.” She was warned this could be dangerous, but it wasn’t. “People were so nice,” she says, “really accommodating.” She asked what they thought of the pageant–most were glad it was coming–and posed other questions based on those commonly asked of pageant contestants, such as “Do you believe in premarital sex?”

Wainwright has been told that all 50 of the Miss USA contestants will attend the exhibit’s opening. “I will finally meet those pageant contestants that I had only dreamed of meeting as a young girl,” she says. “I hope to have a very interesting discussion about the show with Miss Indiana.” She adds that there will be two performance pieces at the opening: “Trevor Martin will be donning a beautiful haute couture ball gown and moving along a wall outside the gallery; he will lean into the wall and kiss the wall wearing red lipstick. Donald McGhie [Wainwright’s husband] will be in a formal kilt holding a silver tray and passing out large sausages with tartan napkins–I love the idea of looking into the gallery and seeing people standing around holding these large sausages.”

“From Steel to Flesh” is on view at the IUN Gallery for Contemporary Art, Indiana University Northwest, 3400 Broadway, Gary, Indiana, through March 2. Gallery hours are 9 AM to 7 PM Monday and Wednesday, 9 AM to 5 PM Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. The opening, which is free, will be from 6 to 8 PM this Friday. Call 219-980-6891 for more.

–Fred Camper

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.