Robert Mapplethorpe will always be connected with the social and cultural boom of the 1970s and ’80s; with the New York gay scene, with poet and rock singer Patti Smith, with the rich and famous and influential. But to look at his photographs individually, to separate them from the cult of personalities that lie both behind and in front of the camera, is to recognise that Mapplethorpe treats a lily flower the same way he would treat a leather fetish object. By this I mean he has a keen attention to detail, a focus on light and shadow, on the aesthetic possibilities and opportunities in photography, film and its development that goes beyond the who and what to the why and how.
The largest display of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work is currently being exhibited at the Art Gallery of NSW in Sydney. It’s a dual exhibition, a combination of two exhibitions held last year in Los Angeles County Museum and the J. Paul Getty Museum. The exhibition features over two hundred of his works.
The exhibition charts his world through his lens: Mapplethorpe’s iconic relationship with Patti Smith, experiences in the New York gay scene, networking experiences with the rich and famous, floral still life’s and sculptural depictions of African American men. In the last stage of the exhibition, Mapplethorpe turns the camera on himself as subject. We see the study of his own sexuality, his own self-representation. We also see the photographic depiction of Mapplethorpe’s reaction to his imminent death from AIDS.
In the treatment of such a variety of subjects, each image shows an ongoing reflection of Mapplethorpe’s personality. In a way, the subjects seem to say: ‘This is me as seen by Mapplethorpe’. Homosexual imagery (X), floral Still life (Y) and nude portraits of African Men (Z) were the subject tripod upon which Mapplethorpe produced his array of sculptural and artistic photographs. Somewhat chronological, somewhat subject based but consistently intimate and personal, the exhibition develops as you go. Mapplethorpe is so intertwined in his work, so present, that in viewing his photographs we almost see Robert himself staring back at us. A reflection, a conglomerate of personal relationships, intimate connections, the cultural society in which he lived, all protrude through the images.
In Patti Smith’s biography, Just Kids, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe was a vital companion, a character of artistic talent and curiosity, an influential artist and a poignant documentarian. A devoted lover and friend. She writes of him: ‘He will be condemned and adored. His excesses damned or romanticised. In the end, truth will be found in his work, the corporeal body of the artist.’ Patti Smith was one of the first subjects of Mapplethorpe’s photographs and she is the first subject to appear in this exhibition. Their artistic relationship in these photographs is intertwined with their intimacy and lasting friendship. Both their personalities speak through the images.
Mapplethorpe’s oeuvre has become a political platform for present day politics at one of its most crucial times. His works fill the pure walls of AGNSW with images of controversy. In a period where homosexuality was emerging from the hidden crevices of society, where feminism was doing the same and where sexuality was a thing to be explored and celebrated, he became a documentarian of the societal culture and change that was happening right in front of him, through his lens.
However at its core, these images are three things. They are artistic, they are personal and they are raw. As Patti Smith says they are filled with a kind of innate truth. Whether Mapplethorpe was depicting X, Y or Z: a fetish, a flower, or a nude, every image seeks what Mapplethorpe considered ‘perfection in form.’
Though Mapplethorpe’s photography was never intended to be a political statement, it mirrors the issues of the present. In the film polaroids of gay culture, magazine clippings, intricate assemblages and personal and intuitive self-portraits one can recognise a push to broaden societal understandings and pursue acceptances in the way that Mapplethorpe understood and accepted himself. Though his work was an attempt to reflect the people and experiences of his life, his ‘unflinching quest for beauty has an enduring political and artistic resonance.’ (artgallerynsw)
The major exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs ‘Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium’ is open until the 4th March 2018 at the Art Gallery of NSW.
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