A pair of sparkly high heels, leopard-print nylons, and a man’s hairy legs. What’s wrong with this picture?
The picture is by Nancy Grace Horton, and the answer is nothing. Her recent photographs offer an honest look at men who wear women’s clothing. “This is a part of our culture,” she said. “Here it is. It’s OK.”
Horton’s “Mr./Mrs.” series is one of several projects in which she has explored gender roles over the past five years. Her solo exhibit at Engine in Biddeford, Maine, called “That’s What She Said,” reveals connections throughout her work in new ways. It opens with a reception on Friday, May 27, from 5 to 8 p.m., coinciding with Biddeford and Saco’s ArtWalk.
As the nation debates the right of people to use whichever public restroom aligns with their gender identity, Horton’s work is unintentionally timely. The work in progress has been a learning experience that she takes seriously and approaches sensitively.
“I’m hearing about the difficulties people have just trying to express themselves. I want to bring light to it,” she said.
She knows there are different reasons why someone might put on a dress. Sometimes it has to do with sexuality or gender, and sometimes it doesn’t.
“If a man dresses as a woman, it doesn’t mean any one thing. There’s no straight line,” she said. “People like to put things into compartments. It doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t mean certain things.”
“Mr./Mrs.” fits in with the overall aesthetic of “That’s What She Said.” Horton does subversive in a way that’s stylish, intimate, and alluring. However, in this series, the narratives are less constructed and more documentary. A return to her roots as a photojournalist has made finding models a challenge.
“I want it to be real. I think that’s important because it is real,” Horton said. “I’m not poking fun, I’m honoring it and honoring the people that do it.”
Her first model for the series was Knate Higgins, who’s performed in drag as Bunny Wonderland at events around the Seacoast for nearly 11 years. The persona has sort of taken on a life of her own.
“Bunny is an extension of my artistic being. She’s also very much a character about town,” Higgins said.
But, unlike some men who feel more like themselves in women’s clothing, for Higgins, drag is all about acting. The role is “completely separate, though not mutually exclusive” from himself.
“Bunny is just my interpretation of my perfect female. I like to say she’s kind of like a bad cousin. She’s kind of a bad influence,” he said.
Bunny is no stranger to the spotlight and poses confidently in dramatic makeup and full drag in photographs. But Horton focused more on Higgins as someone who occasionally dresses up. “My core personality shines through,” Higgins said.
Though Higgins isn’t considered a cross-dresser, Bunny’s presence has helped others feel more comfortable expressing themselves in that way. “There’s a lot more of them than people are aware of,” he said.
And, he said, Horton’s photographs could start some important conversations. “Hopefully it will make people question, what is gender? How do I identify? What makes us comfortable? What are we trying to accomplish every day when we walk out the door in our clothes?”
Horton says what’s right and wrong, feminine or masculine, are social constructs influenced by mass media and popular culture.
She is also known for capturing unhappy housewives in her “Mad Women” photo series, partially inspired by television portrayals of the 1950s. It was followed by the rebellious “Ms. Behavior” series, which moves the context forward into more of a counterculture mindset.
Her “Mannequins” series includes hundreds of snapshots of the unobtainable and often faceless figures in display windows. Horton eventually bought a used mannequin, which allows her to continue questioning domestic expectations and societal pressures with a highly flexible model.
“Now I can get body parts into places you normally can’t, like a washing machine or stove. So, she’s coming in handy,” Horton said.
Horton has been moving beyond two-dimensional work, and may include the mannequin and other installations in her new show at Engine.
“That’s What She Said” is on view from May 27 to July 23. Engine is located at 128 Main St., Biddeford, Maine, and online at feedtheengine.org.