Thursday, November 5, 2009


i'm pretty sure i was looking at tom of finland's hyberbolic fantasy figures before i came across my first mapplethorpe. hell, the first mapplethorpe's i saw may well have been his flower pictures, with their own exaggerated sexuality subverted by the photographer's smirky smile & wink. "what are you REALLY seeing here?," those pictures seemed to ask. eventually, rm got around to showing us what we were really looking FOR & he loved doing it by contrasts & antinomies as well as transgressions on a large scale: lisa lyons' muscletized but still feminine body or a self-portrait w/bullwhip dangling from asshole. it was hard to look away from his pictures because they seemed to be so natural, even when they were working outside standard definitions of nature or natural.

his "man in a polyester suit" works that way for me. his playful but in your face presentation works not only as a statement of(& also a send-up of) taboo hyperbolic sexuality but as a mockery of the standard idea of social decorum & status. i remember laughing out loud the first time i saw the photo & while there's a locker room aspect to that response, i also think i saw clearly what rm was trying to do & laughter was an appropriate response to what the picture was trying to accomplish.(i've always enjoyed contrasting rm's take on black sexuality w/saul bellow's in mr. sammlers planet. rm's is more playful & honest while bellow can't seem to help using cliche & typical white male fear in struggling w/it).

"Mapplethorpe photographed many black men, in nudes and portraits, but only here did he dress his model in a suit. The combination of impressive member and business attire, compromised somewhat by its cheap, polyester fabric--evident only in the title, not visually--makes this your average white, yellow and brown man's worst nightmare, a black sexual athletic who's savvy enough to be an executive, a sort of superman, maybe your boss. Mapplethorpe's main weakness was a tendency to reinforce the glamorizing strategy of the dominant culture, but when he introduced recalcitrant or suppressed elements, as here, he could rise above this collusion." linh dinh from detainees blog

laughter is an even more appropriate response to rm's portrait of the great artist louise bourgeois. there's something almost adorable seeing this elderly white woman smiling coquettishly while cradling an enormous black phallus(of her own making, i might add). bourgeois' project has been to point to the dangers of the phallocentric patriarchy & if ideas of castration & penis envy & other womanly wiles aren't immediately apparent, you're not looking at the right picture. there's also the question of the grotesque operating here too: bourgeois' wrinkled elderly "witch-y" face & the gnarled enormity of the phallic object. of course, her face is softened by her girlish smile & the exaggerated powerful penis is being cradled so tenderly...& if she MADE it, fashioned it from her fantasies, what does that say about who controls phallic power?

i think the comedy of large penises that danto mentions below is a LONG(so to speak)way from the comedy that rm is exploring about the allure of & disastrous consequences of phallic power in both these pictures.

In a famous episode in A Moveable Feast, F. Scott Fitzgerald expresses concern about the size of his penis, Zelda having said it was inadequately small; and Hemingway suggests he compare himself with what is to be found on classical statues, saying that most men would be satisfied with that. In my nearly four years as a soldier, I would have noticed it if anyone was equipped like the Man in Polyester Suit, or Mark Stevens for that matter. Robert Burns, in one of his nastier verses, wrote “Nine inches doth please a lady”-but something of that dimension would have been negligible in the baths and washrooms of the 1970s if Mapplethorpe’s models are typical. On the other hand, there is a wonderful portrait of Louise Bourgeois, wearing an improbably shaggy coat and grinning knowingly out at the viewer, as if to connect her, us, the artist and his mega-phallolatry in a piece of comedy-for she carries under her arm a sculpture, I daresay hers, of a really huge phallus and balls (Mr. 36 1/2), putting things in perspective. I was grateful to the wise old sculptor for reminding us that the huge phallus was regarded as comical in the ancient world, and there are wonderful images on the sides of Grecian vases of actors wearing falsies to crack them up at Epidaurus. Even so, phallic references define this show (study the relationship between breasts, neck and head in the uncharacteristic portrait of Lisa Lyon, usually seen, as in a book of Mapplethorpe’s photographs of her, engaged in bodybuilding)." ARTHUR DANTO

eventually, rm stopped the mocking laughter & the reckless transgressions no longer brought any comfort from the storm. holbein's trompe l'oeil warning about the perils of rationalism was replaced by rm's dead-on stare & the artist's reticence is replaced by the photographer's grim countenance, ravaged by a more insidious affliction. death's "gaze" has now cathected onto the viewer whose own vision is placed under direct indictment. "how dare you stand there looking," rm seems to be saying, "while i die?" all the feelings that crimp writes about below are evident in this portrait & its call for a militant awakening can still be heard after all these years.

robert mapplethorpe died from complications due to aids less than a year after taking the picture.

"Frustration, anger, rage, and outrage, anxiety, fear, and terror, shame and guilt, sadness and despair - it is not surprising that we feel these things; what is surprising is that we often don't. For those who feel only a deadening numbness or constant depression, militant rage may well be unimaginable, as again it might be for those who are paralyzed with fear, filled with remorse, or overcome with guilt. To decry these responses - our own form of moralism - is to deny the extent of the violence we have all endured." DOUGLAS CRIMP ("Mourning and Militancy," 16)

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