Robert MapplethorpeSelf-portrait 1973

The Perfect Medium is a two-venue Robert Mapplethorpe ‘retrospective’ ongoing until July 31st in Los Angeles, CA.

It’s been on my radar since mid-march when I happened to read The Guardian’s review.

Admittedly, I’m kind of terrible at keeping up with all the various photography exhibitions and happenings. Yet, I’m not dense enough to miss something that makes this big of a splash.

Through a total fluke involving a rare alignment of planets in my favor I ended up in L.A. last weekend after a brutal multi-leg travel itinerary. Going off The Guardian’s advice, I wanted to make sure to catch the part of the show at LACMA.

And through circumstances completely beyond my control, I ended up seeing both exhibits.

There’s a lot that’s interesting about how that came to pass. But what’s most relevant is a conversation I had over drinks in a totally sketchy bar in Culver City the night before I saw the show at the Getty. An acquaintance of my friend in L.A. was explaining that what she–an NYC transplant–was how Mapplethorpe played the uptown art snobs off against the downtown transgressives. I got a little tetchy because one of the things I dislike about Mapplethorpe is that I feel his work steals the spotlight that I would prefer shining on folks like Peter Hujar, Arthur Tress and Stanley Stellar.

As it turns out the uptown/downtown dichotomy is actually integral to the show. The Getty half focuses on how the uptown/downtown preoccupations of Mapplethorpe shaped his artistic practice. Whereas–to me–the half of the show at LACMA seemed more interested in the broader art historical context of the endless battle between the sacred and the profane as motifs for artistic consideration.

My friend accompanied me to both parts and admitted a strong preference for the exhibit at the Getty. To her, it offered a clearer picture of Mapplethorpe–which is maybe the reason that I didn’t like it. It all seemed curated in such a fashion as to appeal to all the hipsters who read Just Kids because it was the cool thing to read.

Whereas the show at LACMA offers a more circumspect reading. You’re treated to some of Mapplethorpe’s early colleges, doodles and sculptural experiments. You get to see him struggle and not quite achieve the desired results and that’s contrasted against a preternatural ability to use photography with grace, control and a sort of aloof clarity of form that transforms photography into something that manages to be painterly only in so far it uses time, light and form in the same way a painter would use light, layered paint and brushstrokes.

Further: the show at LACMA paid special attention to Mapplethorpes obsession with perfection but also tied this in brilliant with a cross section of his high-minded as well as crass and prurient interests perhaps presented in too compartmentalized a fashion to be entirely conceptually appropriate but still interesting, nonetheless.

I was particular taken with two things. Included in one of the long text bits describing currents and movements within the work, there’s a quote about how Mapplethorpe wanted his work to be seen:

I’d like the work to be seen more in the context of all mediums of art and not just photography. I don’t like that isolation.

The other thing that impressed me was the sort of addendum added to balance out the awkwardness of the inclusion of an entire wall of Mapplethorpe’s large color floral prints–and really it’s worth the ghastly $25 entry fee just for those prints–but the final room of the exhibit contextualizes what you’ve already seen in the work of photographers who were Mapplethorpe contemporaries and shared similar considerations. It included images by Larry Clark, Nan Goldin (who as a head’s up: MoMA will be exhibiting her The Ballad of Sexual Dependency starting June 11), Arthur Tress, Peter Hujar, Kiki Smith and stunning excerpt from Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Hustlers.

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