Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Robert Mapplethorpe Night Works

Fire with Fire (song)Image via Wikipedia
I recently visited an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe works at the Alison Jacques Gallery entitled Nightworks and curated, intriguingly enough, by the Scissor Sisters who released an album to complement the show. The curatorial decisions included the complimentary presence alongside Mapplethorpe's own works of visual work of other artists although not, for some reason, any aural accompaniment from Scissor Sisters themselves so that the relationship of the exhibition to the album remains somewhat obscure. 

The exhibition also spread over two spaces since the gallery in question has recently extended into a second space across the road from the original area. The first visible part of the exhibition is a TV that plays the long documentary/interview from 1988. This features some very interesting footage of Mapplethorpe himself discussing his flower pictures described by him as "New York flowers" and of some of his sitters including Louise Bourgeois who appears less than happy with the picture Mapplethorpe took of her holding a giant phallic sculpture. Edmund White also plays a starring role in this video and makes interesting points in particular about the number of portraits Mapplethorpe made of black men, emphasizing the importance of seeing them primarily as pictures of men rather than as being mainly seen through the prism of race. Some discussion is featured of the sexual quality of Mapplethorpe's work though this is treated a little too easily as a historical documentary and not related to other types of portrayal of sexuality either in terms of his photographs of women and children or in terms of other work either at the time or since of sexual nature. Still the video itself is a serious period piece and it was both interesting and fun to watch.

In the main space one enters after the video in the foyer one of the initial pictures displayed is one of Mapplethorpe's most striking flower pictures, simply entitled Amarylis, a colour photograph that instantly lifts one into a space in which the opening out of a flower can indicate both something life-like and sinister in quality. The decision to feature a work of Matthew Barney next to the initial flower is far from obvious and there is something about the quality of Barney that immediately strikes one as out of key with Mapplethorpe's work, not due to the mixed-media nature of it as this was part of Mapplethorpe's early work but instead due to a lack of integration between the elements of the composition and the way in which the work appears set to defy expectations of beauty that Mapplethorpe, by contrast, was always encouraging of. Next to this work is the famous self-portrait in which Mapplethorpe posed with a whip as a tail. The following wall includes a variation on Man in Polyester Suit which was inflected with a coloured background and even sharper penile focus.

Above the first sharp penile picture is suspended a work by Jack Pierson that displays letters spelling the word "torment" and which is just entitled that. Slightly to the side of the penile picture is a folding screen that is blue made by Tom Burr and that is constructed of plexiglass and indicates in its title a reference to a blue movie. The relation between the penile picture, the letters of Pierson and Burr's blue screen is surely one in which the space is sign-posted by indications of sado-masochistic and pornographic type. Intriguingly, though, Burr's screen has a luminous kind of beauty and you can look through it at other viewers seeing them through the prism of blue (hint of a kind of Jarman touch?).

The other side of a door-way from the first penile picture is another one, a very early work from 1971 that is a collage and is titled Cock with Belt in which the cock is trussed by the belt but still hangs towards the left with a kind of care exhibited in the framing. This early picture, by contrast to the somewhat parodic view on the opposite side of the doorframe captures an oddly nurturing side to the SM frame. Next to Cock with Belt is a lovely commentary on the censorship that Mapplethorpe's work has suffered in the shape of nine prints by Glenn Ligon called Red Portfolio that feature black surfaces with white writing offering commentary on the reaction to Mapplethorpe's work.

The far wall of the first room features a take on Mapplethorpe's occasional use of pentagrams in the shape of a mirror in this shape fashioned by Marc Swanson. The wood effect around the mirror suggests something very solid in the pentagram image. By contrast a mirror of Mapplethorpe's own, exhibited here, adorns the other end of the wall. 

There are some pictures of Lisa Lyon, works not often enough exhibited in my view although part of the opening video discusses well the rationale for her place in Mapplethorpe's work as someone who challenged the rigidity of gender. Marc Swanson makes a second appearance with a lovely mixed-media work full of golden chains and wood that is featured next to an early (1974) mixed media of Mapplethorpe's own. A series of pictures of Derrick Cross are present as is also a lovely mirror made in the shape of a star by Mapplethorpe that is the real pendant to Swanson's mirror.

In the side gallery to the main room of the first space there are featured a number of smaller works including Gun Blast, Mapplethorpe's 1985 picture of a gun being fired that has inescapable references to a penile climax. There are also works here by Violette Banks, Neil Gall and, most impressively, of Oswaldo Macia. Macia's short film is of a gymnast who is born out of drapes and moves in and through them in a most dramatic and moving way. The vulnerability of the figure in question is emphasized by its setting as near it there are early bondage pictures from 1974.

The second space across the road is caught within one room and you have to buzz an intercom to be able to enter. It again features a combination of Mapplethorpe works with pieces by more recent artists and is accompanied again by a video, the famous one Patti Smith/Still Moving in which Smith declaims from the Bible and and is framed constantly in a white setting with blankets and sheets that evokes a clear relation back to the video by Macia. The second space is more loosely organised and some of the accompanying work here is less than obvious. I struggled to see the import of the works of Scott Treleaven on show and the very early collage from 1968 appeared here rather out of place. There are, though, another two striking portraits of Lisa Lyon and a picture by Gillian Wearing that is more than disturbing as indicated by its title Me As Robert Mapplethorpe, a work that references the late self-portrait in which Mapplethorpe appeared with a stick which was headed by a skull. Next to this work was a piece by him called Skull and Crossbones, one of his many pieces emphasizing finitude. Banks Violette's piece which strewed light bulbs and steel across the floor Not Yet Titled (The End Edition) struck me as being just something that got in the way, not least as one moved to the late self portrait in which Mapplethorpe posed in a dressing gown and slippers, a piece that belonged clearly with the Wearing/skull picture but which had no obvious relationship to Violette's piece.

There is quite some skill involved in placing Mapplethorpe here in a contemporary context but one of the odd effects of this is a displacement from some of the significant elements of his achievement. There is insufficient feel in the works shown and the proximity of the ones chosen for his deep and profound love for male beauty and the ease with which his eye gazed upon the male form. The fact that so few pictures were chosen seems an exercise in a peculiar minimalism and, oddly enough, it is the videos that linger more in the memory than either any individual work or the general composition of the exhibition. None the less, despite my reservations about the curation of this show and a feeling of lack of understanding concerning a number of choices made I left with a further extension of my already profound admiration for Mapplethorpe's achievement, an achievement that related beauty to death, and the human body to elegance in a way that few other artists have really succeeded in doing. But if I could make a suggestion to the gallery for the next time it exhibits Mapplethorpe, is any chance of a simple focused concentration on his male nudes? There would be much to commend a decision to focus just on this, the subject matter, in many respects, like no other, of his work.


Anonymous said...

I like your review. I think the qualities that you describe in the last paragraph are important and central and were missed in the show. I basically couldn't get past the awkwardness of connections (to the Scissor Sisters? via Asprey Jacques) and was seeing it anyway as some strange and limited opportunism - and on a small and a bit breathless scale. Even trying, I found the show reinforced a slight parochialism of contemporary art which is required to negotiate, via a tie to novel forms of presentation, simplistically specific relations even to its most esteemed practitioners which is usually inadequate to or even disrespectful of some of their achievements (a point I think that came out in some of the tedious juxtapositions that you mention, and was even there when they worked). That a number of the works that were in the show were better and more resolved in a way that transcended the slightly polythene pretensions of the exhibition in either space, that, in Mapplethorpe's case is linked to something dignified and almost statuesque, even austere, is a point worth making. Your suggestion of a show focusing on the nudes would be anathema in this sort of environment (you'd only do it in a better gallery, when it would be great).

I don't want to seem to pick on this gallery, I just think that shows frequently tend to reflect a general standard contemporary journalistic sensitivity. Having said that, I wonder why that type of 'sensitivity' is so problematic. I guess that the idea of that sensitivity is linked to a kind of orientation toward achievable affects calculated on the basis of an inadequate estimation of any individual's potential for responsiveness to originality when faced with actual materials (as in your writing about the Mapplethorpe); a type of journalistic tone - that's all I think it is -whilst it's present now in curating, is easy to spot in (obviously) journalism, especially where it's directed at issues. An example with outrageous pretension is


If you get a chance, take a look at it, it's a piece by an editor of Frieze which branches out as a discussion and is saturated by exactly those types of qualities that would work against any type of comprehension/actual appreciative sophistication whatever (as frequently witnessed by lovers of art everywhere) - explained now with complete insensitivity to some issues of self-identification (for instance). (The mechanics of a situation is as ever the subject where cohesiveness in context comes at the cost of recognition of any specific contributions to a context that would have needed to be more expansive merely to earn one's interest in the first place - there's no detail, no exemplification, no historical sensitivity ...)

Gary Banham said...

Thanks for your comments: very useful. I'm just going to respond quickly now. I will come back to this comment more fully later. The general points you make concerning awkwardness of connection and journalistic sensibility seem to go together. The reason for the awkward connection with contemporary works seems to be because of a certain expected journalistic response, a response that requires work to be "contemporary", meaning expressive of something "now", "today". Even with work like Mapplethorpe's that is from still a very recent past I think there is impatience and expectation that it should say something in connection with today's art, whatever it is that "today" is thought to be!

I'll get back to this comment after I've had time to look at the Frieze piece but thanks very much for this comment: has made me think!

Gary Banham said...

I've now had time to look at the Frieze article and agree entirely with your comments concerning it. It is a very typical piece that writes about questions of free speech in a way that rob such questions of any real interest. The operative assumption of the piece appears to be that readers require no more than a passing kind of contact with a subject-matter and that the main point should be to keep them distant from any serious investigation of the complex ways in which censorial responses can be elicited in relation to an art work. The fact that such a piece can be produced in an art journal does not do much to raise one's hopes about how the context of reception of art works can be seriously improved!

I agree with your original comments with regard to the oddity of the connection with the Scissors Sisters, an oddity accentuated by the fact that there was an album produced by this group in connection with the exhibition and yet the album had no presence in the exhibition space itself and hence *a fortiori* no reflection was held within the exhibition on a connection to the album. The presentation of the works involved little by way of serious attempt to engage the viewer with any suggested connections and, as you say, this is hardly an isolated situation with respect to curation.