Ah, Robert Mapplethorpe… I don’t think I could ever tire of looking at his work. And this latest fix comes courtesy of Alison Jacques Gallery who have arranged this show to coincide with what would have been the iconic photographer’s 70th birthday.
And the curator of this show is another iconic photographer – Juergen Teller. A man whose own work has much in common with Mapplethorpe. Provocation and a subversive spirit links both men; but to focus on this alone overlooks the beauty in both of their work.
Teller worked in collaboration with The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation in New York to select the forty-eight images for this display. And given the parallels between these two artists, perhaps we should not be surprised that Teller has selected images from the full breadth of Mapplethorpe’s interests.
Yes, there is the sex, yes there are penises (obvs) but there are also some haunting, achingly elegant portraits here, such as the androgyny in Pat Dawkins, with her bare breasts, quiffed hair and sharp suit trousers, and the naked Carol Overby, her waist-length hair flowing over her body which is bathed in the brightest of sunlight.
And added to the mix are several still life shots – particular favourites being The Sluggard, 1978, taking Lord Leighton’s famous bronze, almost portraying him as a lover just getting out of bed and taking a look out of the window over Roman ruins as his lover admires him from behind, and the Horst-esque Michael Reed, 1987, of a toned, muscular male torso given the Michelangelo treatment through use of dramatic lighting.
There is still a tendency to sensationalise Mapplethorpe – and I suppose, to be fair, not many artists are putting up S&M-inspired photographs of mouths painfully clenched open with dozens of clothes pegs nipping tightly around the lips, or an unfiltered view of anal sex – but there is so much elegance and beauty in Mapplethorpe’s work, so much creativity and exploration, that I still feels goes overlooked.
For me, he captured so much of what makes us human – our spirit, our loneliness, our loves, our passions, our humanity, and our beauty. I do feel that I see so much of the world around me in his work, even now. And even though so much of Mapplethorpe’s work explored what was often hidden.
That spirit of Mapplethorpe’s work is captured effortlessly in the blown-up image of Marty Gibson, which dominates the first gallery. The beautiful naked male body is there (of course) but there is something celebratory, uplifting in this photo. The joy in the image, its carefree spirit, is almost tangible.
There is sex in Mapplethorpe’s work, for sure. But there is also romance. A beautiful, elegant and – yes – provocative display. When it comes to Mapplethorpe, it is ever thus.
Alison Jacques Gallery, London, to January 7, 2017
Lead image: Madeline Stowe 1982 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission
Courtesy Alison Jacques Gallery, London
Installation images by me.