Essay text for Rowe's MFA Thesis Exhibition Catalog written by Karen Irvine, Deputy Director and Chief Curator, Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago
Shawn Rowe’s (American, b. 1985 ) project V (2017-18) centers around a young, slight man, at once
grown up and childlike, depicted in various poses, usually alone. He often turns away, his face obscured.
Sculptural and bared, his body is both alluring and vulnerable. Occasionally the man is depicted with a
partner, who is almost his mirror double. The juxtaposition of the images signals that this project is not
only a portrait, but also an exploration of intimacy and sexuality.
The mostly muted, black-and-white series is punctuated with bursts of color, particularly reds
and pinks that interrupt the solemn tonality with a current of passion and heat. They also mimic the
ruddy abrasions that appear on the subject’s bare chest and pale skin. In one image, his thumbnail is
painted a subtle shade of gold. Like the color pink, this adornment hints at the artist’s underlying
concerns, namely the performative nature of gender.
Rowe describes V as existing somewhere between self-portraiture and fiction. Indeed, he
considers the man portrayed as a stand-in for himself. He explains: “V is inspired by my own experience
as a queer man. My subject’s vulnerability, frailty, and relative obscurity is meant as an allegory for my
own insecurities about the body and the pressures placed upon it.” The ambiguity of the title V points to
Rowe’s interest in the limitations of words. Littered with outdated and gendered terms, the vernacular
language often fails to describe what one sees—or how one feels.
Interspersed among the portraits are images of nature. A dead, dried out tree stands tall and
isolated in the landscape. Like the young man’s body, it is fragile, yet it endures. In another darkly
printed photograph, menacing, choppy water fills the frame. Next to it, an image depicts a man’s hand
tugging on the skin of his own back, as if to mimic the water’s forceful, tidal pull. In other images nature
is restrained. A photograph of a wilting houseplant appears next to an image of a man’s shoulder
marked by the shadow of leaves. This pairing suggests a mirror, but the connection is merely formal. Rowe describes his landscape works as references to the symbiosis between nature and the body.
Nature is untamable, and it can only be coaxed and coerced so far.
There are also architectural forms―an electricity tower printed in negative, for example,
suggests danger and provides a sharp contrast to more organic subjects. The inverted image points to
the illusion of photography and Rowe’s interest in the medium’s inherent inability to fully depict any
situation or any one person. Photography, like identity, is continually shifting and always subject to
In V Rowe creates a palpable sense of tension between the exposed young man’s body and
various abstract, looming forces. This symbolic weight reflects societal pressures on the queer male
body, and ultimately, offers a poetic rebuff of stereotype and oppression.
Deputy Director and Chief Curator
Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago