Martin Casuso's "What Do Male Icons Day-dream Of?" is a series of five figures stitched with yarn onto dry-erase boards.
The images, which include a fireman, policeman and cowboy, are based on flash cards about professions, referencing an era in which gender roles were rigidly defined. The gradual breakdown of such stereotypes is expressed via iron-on transfers that serve as thought bubbles, accompanying each portrait.
"They can think about a multitude of things," Casuso says. "[The bubbles may contain] a woman's face or a bosom, a man's crotch ... It's not so obvious anymore what you're thinking or who is gay or straight and who's masculine or feminine."
The work is one of several he has in the "Appropriated Gender" Art Exhibition, a group show at 1310 Gallery in Fort Lauderdale. It will be open 5-9 p.m. Oct. 6 and during a closing reception 7-10 p.m. Oct. 12.
Casuso, 50, grew up in the '60s and '70s when "normality" was portrayed by shows such as "Leave It to Beaver" or "The Brady Bunch." He says he envies the current generation of homosexuals because they have more to ground them in a normal sense of self.
"While mine was probably the last generation taught to be embarrassed or horrified by these inclinations, it's difficult even at my age to separate myself from that feeling of separation from what's considered normal," he says.
"Homosexuality and coming out of the closet was very different in my youth. The role models we had in film and television were always these flamboyant characters who were up for ridicule."
Despite his love-hate relationship with that era, his work references that period because it's part of what defines him today. But on some levels, it seems he's redefining things from that period through his works, which tackle serious issues in ways that are playful, imaginative and enlightening.
"I never quite felt like I could identify with truly masculine roles," he reveals. "I also couldn't fully identify with female roles."
To represent the pull in two directions, Casuso, a former antique store manager who recently earned his master's degree in fine arts from the University of Miami, uses hardware store purchases and masculine images with sewing and craft notions, thrift store finds and 1970s crafting kits.
"Short," another of his works in "Appropriated Gender," contains a vintage English "grandmother" clock (which tends to be shorter than grandfather clocks) atop a table. The clock, covered in stripes of hand-knit acrylic, gives the work a phallic appearance.
He also created a stop-action animation video about little knitted characters searching for love. He made the characters on Knit Magic, a 1970s Mattel toy.
"It was meant for girls to learn how to knit but not really because you just crank it and it creates one shape that you're supposed to modify to create other things," Casuso says.
The Knit Magic box depicts a pigtailed girl cranking out what looks like short knitted tube socks, each with sort of a lip around the open end, and the promise: "So easy! Turn the handle, knit a row a second!"
"What I always found horrifying is that if you look at what she's knitting, what's coming out of the machine, it looks like a penis or a condom," Casuso says. "I always found that strangely subliminal, why everything designed for little girls during that period seemed to be gearing them towards some sort of sexual role."
Casuso used the difficult-to-master machine to make about 900 sock-like bits, complete with machine-made flaws. Rather than new yarn, he mostly used yarn unraveled from what he describes as "those scary grandmother quilts" found in thrift stores. It's a technique he says fits well with his affinity for recycled materials and his identity with materials that are "meant to be homey and full of love but end up tossed away at thrift stores when people decide they're not worth keeping."
After making the socks, he began stuffing them, creating little knit penises, he says. "When I covered some of them in sequins, glamorizing them, I thought they would make nice little sparkly characters in a video," he adds.
The resulting short non-narrative films depict the shiny characters bopping around, sometimes in pairs. In one scene, two stand together watching a boat (which is actually a needlepoint composition found in a thrift store) glide past.
"It's meant to reflect the feeling of being slightly off in comparison to normal society, and that constant search we all have for somebody to be with," Casuso explains. "It's not maudlin, just funny. These films are not meant to be super-heavy. But even the funniest things can be impregnated with a sort of ennui or sadness."
Colleen Dougher operates the South Florida arts blog Arterpillar.
What: "Appropriated Gender"
When: 5-9 p.m. Oct. 6 as part of Art Fallout (Artfallout.blogspot.com) and closing reception 7-10 p.m. Oct. 12.
Where: 1310 Gallery (Sailboat Bend Artist Lofts), 1310 SW Second Court (Middle St.), Fort Lauderdale
Contact: 305-975-6262 or Sailboatbendartists.com
More on artist: Martincasuso.com