Writer Hilton Als Reveals the Sculpture That Helped Him Redefine Masculinity

Hilton Als. Image courtesy of Hilton Als.

In this series, Obsessions, writers select a treasured cultural artifact and hold it up to the light, reflecting on the revelations it has sparked, the nostalgia it conjures, and the deep-seated urges it articulates.

I'm not quite sure if it's an obsession—I reserve that honorific for more personal matters—but I have a sculpture by the brilliant Jared Buckhiester that I wouldn't part with for the world. It makes me think about so much: not only form, but history and the queer mind, too.

The piece is about a foot high; not terribly big, but big enough. It shows a figure—a male figure—riding backward on a horse. The horse is bucking; you can see its goofy teeth. There is no danger here: the male figure is bending backward to accommodate the action of the horse. Both man and beast are having fun.

Jared Buckhiester, Marlon Brando as Emiliano Zapata, 2017.

Sometimes, when I’m just sitting around, I look at this wonderful object and laugh. It’s like a still from a particularly surreal and amusing silent movie. Though the piece is based on [Marlon Brando playing Emiliano Zapata]—a key figure and general in the Mexican Revolution (1910-20)—it is not a monument. Jared has made him a living figure, fist in the air.

I first saw the 46-year-old artist’s work many years ago, when I hired him to help me with a project. His eye and sensibility remain important to my understanding of art, particularly in a marketplace that's defined at present less by surprise than by the acquisition of comforting narratives about someone else's oppression.

Buckhiester's power is his imagination, and it's a beautiful, refreshingly reckless one. Always at the center of his work is some kind of reference to queerness in all senses of the word—his cowboys and military guys are given a garment, or a gesture, that calls attention to standard “manly” attire and affect while breaking free of it. His work makes me rethink all the hang-ups that go into so-called masculinity—the joy to be found in turning all that on its head.

For more Obsessions, read J Wortham's reflection on the film Past Lives and Nicolaia Rips on Groucho Marx