Mark Morrisroe’s Underground 80s Erotic Art Film, Nymph-O-Maniac

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Morrisroe_Pre-Nympho Pia
Mark Morrisroe (1959-1989); “Pre-Nympho Pia, Young Pia Howard (Nude in Bathtub)”, 1982; Vintage chromogenic print (negative sandwich); 20 x 16 inches, sheet© Estate of Mark Morrisroe (Ringier Collection), Fotomuseum Winterthur

Now on view at CLAMP in New York, Morrisroe’s 8mm home movie follows a phone sex operator and her friends, one of whom meets an unfortunate end

During his brief but brilliant life, Mark Morrisroe (1959–1989) cut a mythic figure as Mark Dirt, a teen hustler turned performance artist and photographer. Widely known as Boston’s first punk, he walked with a distinctive, exaggerated limp thanks to a bullet lodged perilously close to his spine (the work of a disgruntled john who shot him in the back when he was just 17).

Treating the world like a stage, Morrisroe played the role of consummate anti-hero whose weapon of choice was art. It’s a philosophy that was born of survival, ambition, and an exquisite sensitivity to the mysterious realm where the beautiful and the grotesque meet. He quickly found himself at the centre of a coterie of young artists including Jack Pierson (who shot Mike Faist for the new issue of Another Man), Nan Goldin, David Armstrong, Gail Thacker, and Stephen Tashjian (aka Tabboo!) – a group later dubbed ‘the Boston School’.

Favouring experimentation over tradition, they adopted a DIY approach to image-making which contrasted with the polished surfaces of the New Colour movement that dominated fine art photography in the late 1970s and early 80s. Where photographers like William Eggleston, Richard Misrach, and Stephen Shore captured majestic scenes of American life, the Boston School turned the camera on themselves, conjuring tender landscape of their inner lives, imperfections, and shared intimacies.

Morrisroe treated the photographic print as a singular work so that no two versions of the same image ever looked quite alike, and brought this same to his filmmaking projects. Armed with a Super-8 camera, he brought together a cast of friends, lovers, and artists for a trilogy of debauched shorts including The Laziest Girl in Town (1981), Hello from Bertha (1983), and Nymph-O-Maniac (1984).

Replete with stiff wigs in daring coiffures, thrift store couture, gratuitous nudity, and delicious dialogue, Morrisroe’s 8mm home movies bring to life the extraordinary cast of characters at the vanguard of a new era of art, punk, and queer culture.

Like queer fillmmakers Andy Warhol, Jack Smith, James Bidgood, and John Waters, Morrisroe embraced the detritus of American culture as the inspiration for his most ambitious work, Nymph-O-Maniac – a glittering tapestry of sex, violence, glamour, and insouciance. Now on view as part of the new exhibition, Mark Morrisroe | Pre­Nympho Pia and Other Friends Friends at CLAMP in New York, film follows a phone sex operator and her friends, one of whom meets an unfortunate end, as they vamp, gossip, steal, seduce, and discuss their boyfriends’ penis sizes with singular aplomb.

“When I first started showing Mark Morrisroe’s work in 2007, I was surprised and delighted by the immense fervor and enthusiasm for his work that goes back to the people that knew him and deeply believe in his artistic integrity,” says gallerist Brian Paul Clamp, who has curated five exhibitions of the artist’s work. For the new show, he pairs the rarely screened film with a selection of photographs of friends who also starred in his films including Jack Pierson, Rafael Sánchez, Gail Thacker, Lynelle White, and Morrisroe. Taken together, the still and moving images reveal the hand of the artist, the presence of the artist felt in the raw physicality of the media itself.

“There’s a roughness and grittiness to Morrisroe’s films that relates to the photographs,” says Clamp. “The photographs go beyond just being documents and become objects in their own right. There is an anti-aesthetic to all of his work that makes it look like anybody can create art, and also a more honest connection between artwork and the artist. It’s something that unites the artists of the Boston School. If Morrisroe takes a picture of Nan Goldin, then that becomes reciprocal, and creates an artist network that mirrors a social network that existed in the real world.”

Like Goldin, who saw her friends as celebrities and rock stars, Morrisroe recognised collectivism as a creative enterprise. Together they forged a new language of photography born out of desire and need. For Morrisroe, art was an extension of life, one that transcended his untimely death from Aids-related illness at just 30 years old. More than three decades later, his work continues to speak to our present time, inspiring a new generation of queer image-makers to break all the rules in search of their truth.

Mark Morrisroe | Pre­Nympho Pia and Other Friends is on show at Clamp in New York until 12 July 2024.