Robert MapplethorpeCock (1985)

Ever since the Venus of Willendorf or Lascaux paintings–or, as I refer to it, tongue-in-cheekily: prehistoric Instagram–visual art, as such, has been preoccupied with ontology of representation.

There has been–and as far as I’m concerned, continues to be–resistance to photography/image making as capital A Art. Although I am decidedly on the photography can absolutely be Art side of things, it does occur to me that there is a fundamental conceptual rift between other forms of visual art and photography; namely: painting, sculpture and architecture are arguably not primarily but intrinsically decorative, too.

Painting, sculpture and architecture proclaim look at this here in this specific place, i.e. the location of the canvas, the relationship of a sculptural object to its surroundings, architecture as the physical manifestion of space as decoration.

Photography/image making starts from the same impetus–the hey, look at this! exclamation. However, it does not have the same relationship with location in place, space and time. (Thus, I think, the fixation in fine art photography on conceptualization and installation–whether that be in a physical/virtual gallery or increasingly in the making of artists’ books.)

In a sense–presentation becomes part of what activates the photo/image as Art.

(I don’t have time to tease out the implications in this forum, but I do think it would make an excellent interrogation to expand this notion using Benjamin’s rt in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction viewed through the prism of @knitphilia‘s thesis on the deeply misogynistic history of distinguishing (and through distinction, diminishing) forms of creative expression normally associated with femme creators as ‘craft’–as opposed to ‘art’.)

Strangely, it was this thought that led me to a ‘discovery’ (of sorts) in the above photo It seems this was never something Mapplethorpe printed during his life. A print was made in 2010 and gifted by The Robert Mapplethorpe foundation to LACMA .

The digital print was clearly made by someone intimately familiar with Mapplethorpe’s work–the balance and interpenetration between highlights, mid-tones and shadows with the sort of atmospheric haze (sfumato) despite the razer sharp focus, couldn’t be more Mapplethorpe if it bore his signature.

Yet, knowing all that about the work there is still something about it that makes it Art–I think–even before it becomes physically instantiated: yes, the work (just like all visual art) says hey, look at this! and like all photography/imagery it (implicitly) states this is how I see this thing! Mapplethorpe takes things a step further and says: by looking at this it will be clear to you why I think this is beautiful should be appreciated.

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.


robert mapplethorpe / bush

For me, the cloud of controversy surrounding Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs becomes a filter through which I see them.

Mapplethorpe’s focus on taboo/pornographic content courts outrage. But it is an outrage unlike the allegations of child pornography leveled against Sally Mann for Immediate Family or claims of exploitation dogging Nan Goldin since The Ballad of Sexual Dependency; it is intended. Mapplethorpe invites a visceral reaction, even if that means pissing someone right the fuck right off.

Were that all he were about he’d be no more relevant than any other shock-solely-for-shock’s-sake artist. What makes Mapplethorpe matter is his realization that for good, bad or ill: even being pissed off at it necessitates at least some degree of visceral engagement with the work.

A dangerous thing when the work possesses a deep wonderment and the  taboo/pornographic content is carefully underscored with an uncommon intimacy. Even more upsetting when technical craft is so stunningly refined—and not for its own sake, as a testament to a belief in the labor owed as a result of being allowed to bear witness to profound beauty.

This is may be why Mapplethorpe’s work remains controversial—one either sees and embraces its beauty or the dissonance between authorial intent & audience reaction creates a deafening feedback loop.

(Then again, I could just be floored by finally finding a depiction of fisting that despite being a bit too much of a close-up is masterfully executed and resonates with my experiences of feeling my hand encircled tightly with wetness and warmth.)