I've never met the photographer John Coplans, but I feel that I know him well. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that I've known him intimately well for about 20 years. A lot of people, maybe dozens of thousands, could say the same. John Coplans is now 81 years old and for the past 20 years he has made his aging body the sole subject of his art. So many of today's artists, especially young ones, are guilty of self-obsession. Their narcissism is so complete that an encounter with their art is often nothing short of approaching an existential black hole. But when a great talent is combined with wisdom - think of Rembrandt and Picasso, who repeatedly mined their own life to make art - then it is not an obsession anymore, but a gospel according to a wise and talented man. In front of self-portraits of an aging Rembrandt or the erotically charged images by Picasso well in his 80s, do you think about them, or your own feelings of vulnerability, fear and desire?
I remember that twenty years ago, seeing John Coplan's body in a series of large black and white photos was, at first, slightly uncomfortable and disorienting: Never the whole body, only cropped parts of it appear in his photos. And let it be said, his body is not buffed, to put it politely. He doesn't even bother to suck it in-Is he not aware of his protruding belly, short stubby fingers and penis all but disappearing into folds of skin? Yes, you bet he is.
An exhibition of his photographs at the ACE gallery is a rare treat, providing "tough love" images for the eyes and plenty of food for thought. Sparsely installed in a series of medium sized austere looking rooms, these "self-portraits" transform the space into a chapel-like environment. Many images are constructed of clasped hands, observed from various angles. I dare you to look at them without thinking, at least for a second, of how erotic they are. One usually thinks of nudity in terms of breasts, buttocks and genitals. John Coplan's art in this respect doesn't discriminate against any remaining parts. His body has become a metaphor for the human body - yours and mine - the inseparable union of flesh and soul. Probably because of the profound experience of watching my own father dying, these images resonate especially strongly with me. These iconic images of toes, fingers, limbs, hairy skin - but never heads or faces - are zen-like statements, perceiving the mortal body as part of the immortal universe.
See this exhibition: Do engage your eyes, expand your mind, feel your vulnerability. Don't miss this chance.
For more information:
"Hands and Fingers"
ACE Gallery Los Angeles
Institute of Contemporary Art
5514 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90036