Photo credit: Robert Mapplethorpe Self-portrait 1980 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission
It is clichéd to say that a picture tells a thousand words. But there’s also some truth to this and one photographer who certainly knew and appreciated how an image could confound or shape one’s perception is Robert Mapplethorpe. He is the late artist, photographer and former muse to Patti Smith. The Perfect Medium is a new exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW, and it’s one that is playful and relishes in challenging our expectations and ideas about identity, sexuality, masculinity and more.
Mapplethorpe came of age during the sixties when he first met Patti Smith and the pair took up residence at the Chelsea Hotel. Smith has described their relationship as lovers, friends and creative muses in her award-winning memoir, Just Kids. Smith features in the early part of Mapplethorpe’s exhibit, most notably in the photos that he shot of her, which would become her famous album covers, Horses and Wave (the latter with the Patti Smith Group.) There are also private shots of Smith and an artistic video the pair did called, Still Moving which is from the MOMA film library and one that shows the grandmother of punk in fine poetic form.
The androgynous look that Smith exhibits on the Horses cover is an idea that Mapplethorpe expands upon throughout this exhibit. He also collaborated with a female bodybuilder named Lisa Lyon and in a series of photographs she employs different guises and identities, as directed by Mapplethorpe. The photographer himself was also comfortable amplifying and playing down his own masculine and feminine, traits as he saw fit. In some self-portraits he is the defiant, James Dean-like rebel in a black leather jacket and in others the cute femme fatale in make-up and a luxurious fur coat.
If there was one word that summed up Mapplethorpe’s work it would be “contradictory.” His aim was always to challenge and provoke the viewer. There are shots where he appropriated religious icons and gay pornography as well as rather graphic shots of the gay S & M culture from New York in which he was an active participant. It is important to remember the context that some of these shots were taken in, it was a period when it was a political act to publicly declare you were gay.
There are also nude stills and sex acts depicted in photographs taken from his portfolio X and these are shown alongside his subsequent portfolios, Y and Z. The former of these two is dedicated to quite sensual shots of flowers where statins, bulbs and petals are explored with a keen eye and in the same kind of loving care and detail as the contours and crevices of the human anatomy that Mapplethorpe captured in his nudes. The Z portfolio showed African American men staged in different poses but these were met with criticism on account of their implications for power and race and that is a worthy discussion for another day.
This exhibit also includes some stunning portraits of some famous individuals. These include Andy Warhol, Debbie Harry, Yoko Ono, Isabella Rossellini and Philip Glass. Mapplethorpe was meticulous with his portraits, pouring over contact sheets for hours and working closely with printers in order to create perfect images. Perhaps the most profound picture from this entire collection is a self-portrait of Mapplethorpe from 1988 where his body is so thin and clearly ravaged by the AIDs virus that will ultimately rob him of his life the following year at the all too young age of 42.
Robert Mapplethorpe’s The Perfect Medium is a fascinating study of the photographer’s body of work and collaborations with different muses. It’s a show that is not without controversy (although some of the images are obviously less shocking today than they would have been when they were first exhibited.) The Perfect Mediumis ultimately a fine collection of varied photographs that will challenge and confound your thinking whether it is a flower, nude figure or a fetish, the result is something that is always a visceral combination of the bold, alluring and sensual.