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May 29, 2024

MFA candidate explores themes of masculinity and identity through art

Gustavo Uriel Ayala, an artist with vibrant and thought-provoking pieces that delve into themes of masculinity, identity, and belonging, is one of the MFA candidates in the Department of Art, Art History, and Design at Michigan State University who is graduating this spring and whose work is included in the 2024 Master of Fine Arts Exhibition, which runs March 9-May 26 at the MSU Broad Art Museum.

Born in Mexico and raised in Vincennes, Indiana, Ayala’s artistic path began at Vincennes University where he earned an Associate degree in Studio Art in 2013. He then attended Herron School of Art and Design in Indianapolis, where he graduated with a BFA in Painting in 2015.

MFA candidate Gustavo Uriel Ayala standing in front of his painting, titled “Between the Legs,” which is included in the 2024 Masters of Fine Arts Exhibition.

As an undergraduate, he began teaching himself how to sew as he worked on a wearable project he completed for a sculpture class. During the pandemic, he bought a sewing machine and taught himself more advanced techniques for basic garment construction. Once he arrived at MSU, he began to incorporate sewing into his studio practice. During his first year in MSU’s MFA program, his experimentation with sewing resulted in a series of varsity letter-inspired patches that were in the shape of wrestling figures.

“The process of creating the patches put an emphasis on how line, shape, and color could be used in painting to connect the depictions of struggle with the broader, more universal themes of tension and isolation,” Ayala said. “Most of these patches depicted fragmented torsos, reminiscent of Greek statuary, but one featured two interlocked figures wrestling. That piece stood out to me, and when compared to the paintings in my thesis exhibition, I can trace many ideas back to it.”

Through his art, Ayala grapples with his attraction to traditional masculinity and the societal pressures associated with it. He confronts these complexities, exploring the tensions between personal desire and societal expectations.

“Because of the associations between the male athlete, masculinity, and straightness, my idolization of the jock figure embodies a reverence for and betrayal of conventional gender norms,” Ayala said. “As a gay immigrant, this attraction to the very system used to oppress my own sense of self-worth and personal security creates a sense of tension. The images that I source evoke this tension through their latent eroticism and expressions of suffering.”

“Head-to-head” by Gustavo Uriel Ayala, which is part of the 2024 Masters of Fine Arts Exhibition.

In translating complex emotions into visual form, Ayala embraces ambiguity, evolving his work organically over time. He acknowledges that his understanding of his work often comes in hindsight.

“I am learning to appreciate when content is indirectly addressed or left open-ended,” he said. “I think too much specificity can be limiting in a negative way, leaving fewer ways to experience an artwork. Instead, I try to follow the adage of it being better to show something than it is to tell it.”

His artistic process is deeply rooted in imagery, whether painting or working with a sewing machine. He typically begins with digital mock-ups when working from photographic sources, allowing him to visualize his ideas before translating them onto canvas or fabric. His approach varies between mediums. While painting, he works directly without extensive preparatory sketches, whereas with fabric and embroidery each piece serves as a steppingstone for the next iteration.

Ayala has turned to art history for inspiration. He also is inspired by contemporary painters like Doron Langberg, known for his intimate portraits and use of expressive color and mark-making to celebrate feelings of queer desire and sexuality.

“Grasp” by Gustavo Uriel Ayala, which is part of the 2024 Masters of Fine Arts Exhibition.

“It’s helpful to see how our approaches overlap and how they differ. Incorporating flat shapes of color with line drawing and moments of rendering is still new to my process, and so far, I think my paintings can sometimes feel too static. So, it’s nice to see how liberated and joyful the paintings could be,” Ayala said. “Depictions of wrestlers, prizefighters, and the male nude more generally have been present throughout art history. My commitment to the figure originates from learning about these works in the art history courses I’ve taken.”

Navigating the tension between personal expression and audience interpretation, Ayala strives to create work that resonates authentically while allowing room for multiple interpretations. He rejects the notion of making art that instructs viewers on how to feel or think about marginalized identities, preferring to leave his work open-ended and ambiguous.

For his final thesis project, Ayala created a series of paintings that each show two men who are wrestling. He worked on this series in three batches beginning in October 2023 and completing the series in February 2024.

“The first batch of paintings paired rendered bodies using oil paint on flat grounds of (acrylic) color. By the third batch, my figures resembled line drawings more than they do figure painting. Due to their variation, the viewer is tasked with making sense of the paintings in different ways,” Ayala said. “A painting that can be read clearly and that could be interpreted as a moment of tenderness, is positioned among other less legible works, which challenge our vision through dominating color contrast or through their delicately drawn figures in silhouette. Working at a larger scale has been crucial to the fluorescent colors’ impact. Similarly, seeing the figures at human scale or larger relate them to the grandeur of the Greek statuary, which play into notions of an idealized masculinity.”

“Tossed” by Gustavo Uriel Ayala, which is part of the 2024 Masters of Fine Arts Exhibition.

Through his vibrant paintings, Ayala invites viewers to explore their own associations and emotions surrounding masculinity and identity.

“The idea of the jock can be both an object of desire and fear,” he said. “Like me, anyone likely has a complicated relationship with the gendered social structures around us. Or, they may have their own associations with the athletic bodies being represented. Though I’m making this work to consider my feelings of exclusion, desire, and shame, I anticipate the work may elicit a range of emotions from the viewer that is different than my own.”

MFA Exhibition Artist Talks and Reception

The five MFA candidates whose work appears in this year’s MFA Exhibition, including Ayala, will discuss their work during the Artist Talks: 2024 Master of Fine Arts Exhibition event scheduled for Wednesday, March 20, at 6 p.m. at the MSU Broad Art Museum. This event is free and open to the public, but registration is encouraged.

Also, a reception for the MFA Exhibition will take place on Saturday, April 6, from 6 to 8 p.m. with a short awards program beginning at 7 p.m. when recipients of the Selma and Stanley Hollander Fellowship for Graduate Study and the John and Susan Berding Family Foundation endowed Master of Fine Arts Prize will be announced. The reception is free and open to the public, but registration is encouraged.

For more information on the MFA Exhibition, see the 2024 MFA Exhibition web page. For more information on Ayala, see the Gustavo Uriel Ayala bio page.

This story originally appeared on the College of Arts and Letters website. 

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