BY Jenni Sorkin in Reviews | 05 MAY 04
Featured in
Issue 83

Robert Mapplethorpe: Pictures Pictures

BY Jenni Sorkin in Reviews | 05 MAY 04

Strange as it may seem, it is hard to conceive of Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs without thinking of the Christian Right. Thanks to them, the Senate Appropriations Committee and its leader, Senator Jesse Helms, Mapplethorpe became a household name in the US during a dark moment in 1989. Known as the 'Culture Wars', the Helms Amendment prohibited the use of National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) funds for 'obscene' or 'indecent' materials, descriptions that had often been applied to Mapplethorpe's photographs, beginning with his cancelled retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery a month earlier. Instead, 'Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment' was hosted by an alternative space, the Washington Project for the Arts. A year later, in 1990, the same retrospective at the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, was closed by police on the grounds that it was 'criminally ob-scene', which led to the arrest of its Director, Dennis Barrie. In dispute were seven photographs depicting sexual acts or semi-nude children. A jury later acquitted Barrie, but the Mapplethorpe controversy lingers as the shining example of recent art censorship in the United States.

The public has apparently reconciled this controversy by purchasing glossy calendars and greetings cards of Mapplethorpe's more innocuous works: his non-nude portraiture or his still lifes of flowers. As expected, there are no nipple clamp calendars and no birthday cards depicting fisting. Still, even in the art world Mapplethorpe in his glory is rarely seen, owing mostly to institutional reluctance to revisit such dicey issues.

Mapplethorpe died 15 years ago, which makes this show particularly timely. This is the second of two recent artist-curated exhibitions of the late photographer's work. 'Robert Mapple-thorpe: Eye to Eye' was curated by Cindy Sherman at the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York last autumn. 'Robert Mapplethorpe: Pictures Pictures', curated by Catherine Opie, can rightly be seen as the West Coast version of this effort. As artists whose work pivots on gender and transgression, both Sherman and Opie owe something to Mapplethorpe's intriguing combination of desire and abjection, but it is Opie who is his true heir. From her earliest works in the 1990s she has been a conscious imitator of Mapple-thorpe, both in queer subject matter and photographic style: her O Portfolio to his X Portfolio; her strip malls and highways to his apartment buildings and seascapes; her formal portraits of domesticated lesbians to his formal male nudes.

Mapplethorpe's oeuvre can be divided into three separate, but linked, genres: portraiture, the still life and the S/M work, for which he is most famous. Opie's selection adequately documents all three categories, but pays special attention to portraiture, including an early image of Arnold Schwarzenegger and a late one of Alice Neel, but it is her attention to Mapplethorpe's self-portraiture that really stands out. Her most brilliant moment pairs two of Mapplethorpe's most haunting self-portraits, taken ten years apart: the famed bullwhip-up-his-ass devil photograph from 1978, and a visibly sick and haggard Mapplethorpe in a dressing gown and slippers, from 1988.

Whether it is Mona Hatoum curating from the permanent collection at MOMA or Joseph Kosuth putting together a group show at the Brooklyn Museum, the artist-as-curator problem is worth noting. Artists are never judged by the same standards as curators, and a kind of cult of personality often springs up when they are enlisted to perform such a service at a major gallery or museum: it takes a big career and, sometimes, an even bigger ego. Opie's show, fortunately, is totally legit, and her selection is also a self-reflective exercise in the aesthetic of influence, recording inspiration in a specific way and creating an important visual dialogue between herself and her predecessor for an interested public.

There is a satisfying authenticity to Mapplethorpe's photographs, found in the uncanny domesticity of Brian Ridley and Lyle (1979) or the faint stretch marks on body-builder Lisa Lyon's stomach. Such details limit the unchecked awe of the spectacular and ground the photographs in highly conspicuous reality, where we are reminded that even pumping iron doesn't prevent stretch marks, that even leathermen have living-rooms. This is someone's home. Welcome.