Some of the iconic photographer’s most sexual photographs come together with his rarely-exhibited Polaroids and shots of nature
The ongoing Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition, organised by the artist Arthur Jafa, at New York’s Gladstone Gallery asks what fresh can be said about the seminal photographer. The answer lies in movement – of the viewers’ bodies towards and away from his pictures, their eyes to and from the details, and their sensations meandering between awe and serenity. A maestro of image collage, Jafa masterfully orchestrates Mapplethorpe’s arguably most sexually-dense studio images with his shots of nature and Polaroids. Similar to his weaving of found footage in his seminal video work, Love is the message, the message is Death (2016), Jafa, here, excavates uncharted meanings and experiences from an aesthetic that has been ingrained in the photography canon.
Winding through the gallery walls is a trail of bodies, flowers, genitals, faces, and occasionally architectures. Omitting a set path, the viewer may start from a majestic shot of Alistair Butler’s buttocks and move towards two separate images of horses, one black and the other white, and reach Veronica Vera (1982), a romantic shot of a vagina – à la Courbet’s L’Origine du monde – being penetrated by a hand. Jafa crafts the trajectory of images to compose a fluctuation of senses and gestures. The experience requires a dynamic interaction with the photographs, demanding the viewer to near to and distance from images of different scales and directness. The wavy detail of a blossomed rose pairs with a man’s light washed smooth chest; a rocky waterfall in Puerto Rico echoes a penis, gently erected through a pair of denims.
Two works, both titled Sam Wagstaff, show the titular poser in opposite moments of intimacy, and they reflect Mapplethorpe’s emotionally-invested positioning of his lens towards his subjects. In a minuscule size Polaroid from 1973, the artist’s lover and patron poses far behind his penis. The head of his member stares at us, with a blurry Wagstaff appearing brazen, but also potentially self-conscious, in the distance. His larger black-and-white studio shot, taken five years later, presents the same sitter confident, his broad shoulders in an architectural precision and his piercing gaze this time away from the camera.
Numerous bulbous surfaces dot Jafa’s composition – whether a mountainous bread placed over a sheeny surface, a colossal rock gloriously bulging from the sea, or a posterior being penetrated by two arms. Benevolence and anger both inhabit them, contained in Mapplethorpe’s crisp lens towards the subject to reveal their physical and cerebral fissures.
Robert Mapplethorpe is at Gladstone Gallery, 515 West 24th Street, New York, until 14 April 2021.