BEVERLY — It may or may not be a man’s world, but in the photography of Jesse Burke, the world of men is the center of attention.
Currently on display at the Carol Schlosberg Gallery at Montserrat College of Art, Burke’s work captures men engaging in sports, hunting and drinking beer. The show as a whole is identified with the latter activity by the use of a beer’s brand name in its title, “Jesse Burke: High Life.”
There is some version of the beverage in several photos, including bottles of beer cradled in the hands of some portrait subjects, pressurized beer flying out of cans and one figure drinking brew “shotgun”-style.
The exhibit may appear at first like the record of a frat party. But far from simply indulging in male stereotypes, Burke’s work invites an emotional response that complicates and even subverts our understanding of masculinity.
“They’re portraits of primarily the men in his life, whether friends or family, and he really tries to show them in an honest but also kind of a vulnerable way,” said Leonie Bradbury, director and curator of the galleries at Montserrat. “To me, his work addresses or questions the roles that men are expected to play in society.”
Bradbury points to three photos of shirtless male figures whose physiques range from “buff” to one — the artist’s — for whom exercise does not appear to be a priority.
“It’s honest, it’s not idealized, this is who he is,” Bradbury said. “His portraiture — he just shows it so honestly, and in doing so he creates questions.”
Burke, who teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design, usually takes and displays his photos in series. The Montserrat show selects from several of these, one of which focused on life in a hunting camp in North Carolina.
Camouflage material is common in this setting, in the masks men wear and the tents where they sleep, and Burke looks at it in several ways.
The artificiality of camouflage is emphasized in a photo with four completely different patterns lying next to each other, something that men could manufacture but would never happen in nature.
Burke also exposes the contradiction in camouflage, which allows men to merge with nature only by suppressing their own natural appearance. This is highlighted by a photo in which a shirtless man’s white skin, brightened by the flash in which it is captured, contrasts with the dark colors in the camouflage mask on his head.
In a different photo from another series, Burke photographs his young daughter, Clover, whose face is framed, rather than obscured, by a camouflage hood on her jacket. Her big eyes express curiosity about nature, rather than peering at it through slits, and the smudges of dirt on her cheeks show that she has been busy exploring rather than exploiting Earth.
“That series to me is his way of introducing his daughter to nature,” Bradbury said. “He’s not teaching her to hunt, he’s not teaching her to kill anything. It’s a much more tender way of engaging nature versus this macho way. I think him becoming a father changed his life.”
Burke went to Arizona for college, and moving back to Rhode Island was another event in his life that affected his work as a photographer, Bradbury said.
“When he moved back to New England, it was kind of like he was being reintroduced to his upbringing — you see it with new eyes,” she said. “He created the ‘Intertidal’ series in response to getting reunited with his family, and also being confronted with the way that he as a male within his family was supposed to act.”
There are only 22 photos in the exhibit, selected from the several series Burke has created, but they resonate with each other to suggest the larger themes that inform his pictures.
“All of these images together provide a sense of place,” Bradbury said. “For each of these individual images, there is a piece of a narrative, but the goal of this exhibition is that, by all of those pieces connecting to each other, you come up with a sense of place and a sense of a person.”
IF YOU GO What: "Jesse Burke: High Life" Where: Carol Schlosberg Alumni Gallery, Hardie Building, Montserrat College of Art, 23 Essex St., Beverly When: On exhibit through Feb. 9. Gallery hours Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Talk and reception: Artist's talk today at 11:30 a.m. in Room 201 of the Hardie Building, reception from 5 to 8 p.m. in the gallery. More information: www.montserrat.edu