Encountering Jimmy De Sana’s colour photos from the late 1970s and early 1980s is like opening the wrong door at a party and discovering something you’re not meant to see. Nude bodies in peculiar positions. Everything bathed in an unreal light. Lurid green. Sex shop red. Colours from another world. The woman in Leaves stands defiantly, one foot on each side of the bath rim, her neck noosed to the shower rail, clad in nothing more than high heels and leaves. In Soap Suds, a diver, his body caught in an elegant arc from the wall to the toilet, plunges headfirst into its basin, frothy and overflowing with luxurious soapsuds. Marker Cones presents a glossy human racehorse on all fours, with sharp cherry-coloured cones in place of hooves.
"Marker Cones presents a glossy human racehorse on all fours, with sharp cherry-coloured cones in place of hooves."
De Sana died of AIDS in 1990 and remains an under-sung hero from an era of art photography that Cindy Sherman and Peter Hujar came out of. By the 1980s he was a regular fixture of the Lower East Side’s art and New Wave scene. A studio mate of Laurie Simmons, she claims he taught her everything she knew about using a camera. Making money working for magazines and shooting album covers, those he photographed include Debbie Harry, Talking Heads, Billy Idol, Kenneth Anger and, his cultural icon, William Burroughs.
Created with gels and subjected to darkroom tinkering, the colour photos might be De Sana’s most sophisticated art photography. Yet they retain the sense of youthful experimentation that defined his earliest series, 101 Nudes, made back in suburban Atlanta in 1970 when he was barely out of his teens. In these grainy black and white home-printed images friends strip off and strike poses amidst dodgy lamps and stuffed couches. The strange hybrids of people and furniture are more pronounced in the colour photos, the set-ups kinkier and outlandishly imaginative. What’s ever-present is the sense of human frailty, the feeling of awkward bodies consorting with the unyielding world of things, which makes his photos so absurd, funny and moving.
Jimmy De Sana: Suburban Color Sex Pictures is at Wilkinson Gallery until May 12.