INTERVIEW WITH MARCUS NELSON


Hypermasculinity and Mental Health, and the "Socially Engrained Rulebook" on How to be a Man.


 


A00

Where are you from?


M.N

I was born and raised in Oxford but I’ve been in London for a while now. One half of my family are from Yorkshire originally.



A00

Tell us a little bit about your childhood. What was it like?


M.N

There was a fair bit of mischief going on let's put it that way.



A00

Tell us one of those mischiefs you did that you totally regret doing when you think back.


M.N

I would love to but I wouldn’t want to embarrass anyone.



A00

You're now based in London. What's that like? Tell us about your experience of the city.


M.N

I love London because moving here started my career as an artist but I also need to take breaks from it because the amount of noise and people around can sometimes overwhelm me.



A00

You studied at Central Saint Martins. What was that like?


M.N

I did not really enjoy my time at CSM. In my opinion, the institution takes advantage of its notoriety by not providing much to its students. Having said that, I had a really good tutor there for a while called Richard Gasper who is also an amazing artist, he helped me a lot but other than that most of what I’ve learned about my practice and the industry, in general, has been off my own back.



A00

Funny thing, I agree. I studied there and I feel pretty much the same...also hearing similar comments from many other who studied there. What's your studio like?


M.N

It’s a perfect blend of order and chaos.



A00

Before diving into your work, do you have any mentors or artists who inspired you to do what you do today?


M.N

I had a teacher at secondary school who really got me into art and took me under her wing from a young age. She was diagnosed with cancer while I was still a student and we did a painting project together documenting her treatment, it was the first time that I developed the understanding that you can create beautiful moments even in the darkest times through art. She sadly passed away a couple of years ago now, but I think about her a lot. I wish she could see the work I'm making today, I like to think she would have been proud of me.



A00

Wow, that's beautiful. Do you feel that this experience with your teacher has perhaps opened you up to tackle areas of life that are often considered to be uncomfortable? Like mental illness.


M.N

Yes definitely, although I have always been drawn to dark and difficult subject matter even before that- when I was a child I was always drawn to villains more than heroes. My interest in mental illness really came about after my own experiences with it coupled with the growing suicide crisis here in the UK, and its complete lack of media attention at the time.



A00

Your work has this strange power of bringing this awkward and often neglected conversation about manhood to the surface. Your first solo show has certainly set the tone. Can you tell us the story behind this?


M.N

Well, I definitely have a complicated relationship with my own sense of masculinity, but more importantly I see a lot of internal issues at the moment with the gender as a whole - represented in the tragic male suicide rates here in the UK. I don't see many other artists out there discussing the topic which is strange to me because I do think there's a lot of really interesting questions to ask, particularly around traditional representations of manhood and how these ideals can have knock-on effects on men as they grow up. My solo show was a way for me to use my own experiences as an example of this.



A00

The gender identity issue is an ongoing topic being touched by many communities, but the topic has always been around homosexuality, femininity (in the context of feminism), gender diversity, genderless, etc etc. For some reason, masculinity in the context of mental health has been somewhat underdeveloped. What do you think was the reason for this? What made it difficult for us to talk about it?


M.N

Well quite rightly, toxic masculinity has become a big part of cultural discussion particularly in relation to misogyny. However, I think in the process of this the male mental health crisis has been largely forgotten, and masculinity, in general, has become a difficult and loaded topic to discuss, which is a shame because this isn't helping us address any of the problems we are facing.



A00

Masculinity, perhaps especially in the western world, has a lot of socially set rules and guidelines. The idea of how men should suffer in silence...never shed a tear, be strong no matter what...the list goes on. This is problematic as this entire culture undermines the fundamental fact that we are humans with complex emotions. Tell us about your relationship with this socially set ideology of how a man should be.


M.N

Yes, I completely agree, there is a socially engrained rulebook that is handed out to boys and it can constrict them when they grow up and can stop them from expressing themselves; however on the other hand I don't think that masculinity should be considered a totally negative thing. Instead of tearing it down, we need to ask how we can subvert it or add to it.



A00

When you say "subvert it or add to it", what do you mean?


M.N

I believe that certain typical ideals associated with traditional masculinity can be a good thing, however, if we can add respect for others, emotional vulnerability, and awareness to what is already there we can more effectively make a relatable form of man that some boys can model themselves from. In doing this we may help the current situation.



A00

I guess you're right to say that masculinity isn't all negative. Some parts of it must be there for a good reason. But some parts of it can feel very unnatural because it denies some of the fundamental aspects of being a human before being a man.


M.N

I agree.



A00

What do would you say is the solution to this issue surrounding hypermasculinity?


M.N


We need more discussion around the topic. The only way we can make things like mental health easier to discuss in the locker rooms, gyms, and other hyper-masculine environments are to create more spaces where conversations around it can take place. The more we all talk about these ideas the more we will normalise them in male circles. That’s why I try to be as honest I can about my own experiences.



A00

Talking about it would certainly broaden some perspectives. It's interesting because talking about it is almost like a gay person coming out. It's a big deal, especially for those who were bound to this hypermasculine identity, to shed a tear or two and to acknowledge the fact that it's OK to feel. You being a wonderful catalyst of this conversation, what did you learn so far?


M.N

I wouldn’t want to compare those two experiences, but it is definitely difficult for guys to talk about this stuff. It's funny because even I still find it hard to talk about the fact I've battled depression and anxiety over the years, even with the fact that I speak about it in interviews all the time and I'm constantly discussing the subject matter publicly or through my work. If I still find it hard, it makes me think about how difficult other guys must find it.


A00
The idea of expressing emotions has been considered to be somewhat feminine. I'm not too sure why this has become the social standard in both the Western and the Eastern world. Do you feel that perhaps the expectations are irrational and unrealistic? And to some extent dictated by uncontrollable factors? For example, typically, there is this notion of men should earn money to take care of his family. Obviously, this is easier to achieve when the economy is healthy, but not the case when hitting rock bottom live the great depression. Yet some men may feel like a failure for not being able to provide. (Almost like unable to fulfill its socially given purpose)


M.N

I think it will be hard to change things but I don't think it will be impossible. Our generation just needs to make sure that masculinity and mental health, in general, is discussed much more openly around the dinner table. Of course, this isn’t the only solution, and some men may always feel the need to be the “provider” of their family and take on the pressure that comes with that, but I know from my own experience that the more I talk to others about this stuff the more normal it becomes to me and the more I understand my own sense of masculinity in the process. Terrible events like the Great Depression are unfortunately unavoidable but hopefully, through these conversations, we can make men feel like they are less alone in these dark moments, and encourage them to seek out for help from others.



A00
Your take on this topic obviously has your unique blend and twist to it, perhaps more apparent in your paintings. Tell us a bit about your style. What's the story? How did you develop it?


M.N

The sense of unease in my work has always been there. But the roughness in the paint has become a kind of resistance to the digitisation and the slick and polished style of painting that has become popular in Europe in the last few years. I love seeing a trace of the artist’s hand because I think we are becoming more and more disconnected from each other and ourselves through technology. I have always wanted my technique to mirror my subject matter, so because I am depicting troubled and flawed men, I want the paint application to also be full of mistakes and imperfections. I am often creating situations in my process where “happy accidents” can occur, and when they do, I pounce on them and heighten them even more so. The overall development has just come through hours and hours of practice and always being very critical of myself.



A00
You've been boxing for some time now, which is nicely mirrored in your work as well. Tell us about your life in the gym. Why martial arts? Isn't it the pinnacle of super-macho sports?


M.N

As I said, I don't believe that all super-macho environments are a bad thing. I really do believe boxing and other combat sports have saved me in a lot of ways. They allowed me to vent my own frustrations, stop partying and create a positive identity for myself. My gym is situated around a lot of estates in North London so I’ve also seen many young boys taken away from a life on the streets and given a new direction through the sport.



A00
I guess sports have very little to no bias when it comes to this sort of thing. The alarming male suicide rates across the world, especially in major cities are very daunting and upsetting. What would you say is the main reason? Is it the financial difficulties? Personal relationships? Obviously, it's all case by case but those men must have been on the edge of a cliff to make this sort of decision.


M.N

I think it's a cocktail of lots of different things. The sad truth however is that men will typically choose not to share any of these stresses with anyone. They keep them bottled up, but you can only hide these problems for so long before they overflow and often lead to tragic consequences. This, however, is made worse by the cultural pressures that we as a society place on men. So it's a vicious cycle really with many elements to it, but I do believe it can be broken.

A00

Speaking of the vicious cycle, I guess parenting is another issue that plays a role in this. Boys who have hyper-masculine fathers might develop the same ideology towards masculinity. What do you think?

M.N

Of course, parenting is a factor, but not every hyper-masculine father will create a son with mental illness. Going back to my reference to boxing, I believe that in many situations having a masculine father will be a support for a son. Many of the boys I know with these problems have had no dad at all in their lives - and according to a study made by the charity Addaction a few years ago, fatherless young people are 70% more likely to take drugs, and 76% more likely to turn to crime. I think a lot of blame is put on fathers when it comes to this stuff but we forget that they themselves are also struggling with their own mental health in many instances - so the vicious cycle repeats itself yet again.



A00
Perhaps fathers need to be educated/made aware of those issues too? So that their understanding of masculinity, especially the negative aspects of it (e.g. find it difficult to express emotions and often reliant on anger, silence, and frustration), aren't inherited by their kids. So that they can teach their boys to express weakness, failures, and other forms of emotions.


M.N

Yes, I agree. There need to be more charities and more services available in general. Unfortunately, it will be difficult to educate fathers but a good place to start would be putting more mental health education into schools.



A00
What about the female gaze? Do you think that the ways in which women view masculinity have a major role in this men's mental illness?


M.N

Sadly, women often have to deal with the effects of male mental health issues first hand. However, they also have the amazing power to positively affect the mental health of men too. Speaking from personal experience, I was a real mess before meeting my girlfriend four years ago and since then she’s really helped me become a much more positive person in all aspects of my life. It’s also been really amazing and unexpected to see women appreciate and engage with my artwork much more than men in many situations too.



A00
Though the issues are very real. I appreciate your efforts in putting this topic under the spotlight. People should talk about it more. Closing the interview on a happier tone, tell us about your boxing style. Are you an in-fighter? A little bit of peek-a-boo? A counter specialist with light feet.


M.N

Haha, thanks. I'm a naturally skinny guy with weirdly long arms so I used to use my range as much as possible.



A00
I've seen guys with long-range do some nasty damage before. Any boxers you find inspiring? Historically or active today.


M.N

I actually watch more MMA than boxing these days. The Diaz brothers will always be my heroes, whether they win or lose. I actually first got into watching them because of how skinny they both are. I used to try and copy their style when I went into the gym and maybe that's why I have so many injuries now.



A00
The Diaz brothers! Both legends. Freakin’ fearless beasts. Anyways, say that you're going back in time, meeting the 10-12 years old version of yourself. What would you say to him? How would you spend the day?


M.N

I'd probably take him up to Alexandra Palace and tell him that everything has a way of working itself out one way or another.



A00
I love that. Last Question, Any movie recommendations?


M.N
I love films about men who have deep character flaws that eventually become their downfall. The Place Beyond the Pines, Heat, Starred Up, Macbeth, and Pulp Fiction have all had a big influence on me and my practice.

 
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