Do you remember the times - seems a century ago - when the controversy over Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs, with their graphic, homo-erotic images, erupted into a cultural war? It was the Reagan era and heated debates in Congress threatened the very existence of the National Endowment for the Arts. The beautiful and provocative photographic image by Andres Serrano of a plastic crucifix submerged in urine ignited Christian conservatives into a crusade against contemporary art. It was then that the Director of the Cincinnati Museum was sued on obscenity charges for showing a traveling exhibition of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, including his famously infamous nude self-portrait with a bull-whip inserted up his' you know what.
In my opinion, these two powerful images have survived the test of time surprisingly well, in my opinion, these two powerful images have survived the test of time surprisingly well, as befitting any strong work of Art. Suspended in amber liquid, Serrano's Christ still appears solemn and transcendent, with the crucifix awash in golden light. While Mapplethorpe's sado-masochistic self-portrait, with its heady mixture of anger and provocation, hasn't lost any of its power as well.
With the recent Janet Jackson fiasco, the whole world became witness to how hypocritical - and totally un-cool - we Americans can be. This ridiculous incident has exposed something troubling about our culture, something that we are very uncomfortable and unwilling to look at, and yet only too happy to find a scapegoat. What a relief to be able to turn away from this obscenely obsessive, pseudo-news coverage of Miss Jackson's bare breast, and instead go to see an authentically shocking, provocative - and yet beautiful - works of art by the late Robert Mapplethorpe.
His exhibition just opened at the recently relocated Marc Selwyn Gallery, and rest assured, many of his images still pack quite a lot of heat, so be careful whom you go with. Several dozen of his images, including a few I'd never seen before, were smartly selected by Catherine Opie, a well-known lesbian artist who herself in the past, did not shy from controversy. On one wall, in tongue-in cheek style, she assembled an array of B&W; photos, including the portrait of a young, still-innocent-looking bodybuilder, long before he became our governor. Next to him, hangs a close-up of a black man's anatomy, which "doesn't dare to speak its name".
There is an astonishing, luminescent portrait of the aging painter Alice Neil, with eyes closed and waves of silver hair framing her face like a halo. There is also a wonderfully moody portrait of William Burrows in a pose reminiscent of Rodin's, "Thinker". The weakest part of the selection is the color photographs of flowers, merely tasteful, the way one might describe the work of an interior decorator eager to please. But the rest of the show is first rate. The stand-out is the B&W; photo of a tattered American flag, harshly lit from behind, as it billows in the air. This poetic and poignant image reverberates especially strong in light of continuing political and cultural wars that are consuming our country.
And just in case you were wondering, Mapplethorpe's famously infamous nude self-portrait is there too. But now, a quarter of a century later, it reads quite differently, as if the artist, with a sardonic smile on his face, is turning to us and saying, "up yours!"-and then waits for our reaction.
Robert Mapplethorpe: Pictures, Pictures
January 31st through March 13th
Marc Selwyn Gallery
6222 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 101
Los Angeles, CA 90048
Phone: (323) 993-9911