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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Mapplethorpe’s ‘Portraits’: stories in black and white

    “”Robert Mapplethorpe: Portraits”” is the first exhibit since his death in 1989 that features his portraits exclusively. Ranging from the mid ’70s to the late ’80s, the exhibit at the Center for Creative Photography frames some of the most prominent figures of the New York cultural world from that era, including Mapplethorpe himself.

    Mapplethorpe’s subjects usually paid him substantial sums of money to look good. Portraiture has a historically clear definition: a focus on the face, particularly the expression. That, coupled with the fact that all the pieces included in the exhibit are black and white and fairly uniform in size, raises the question: what can an artist do within such strict limitations?

    The answer: demonstrate a meticulous care for lighting and geometry, push the boundaries of portraiture as a genre and represent the mood of a generation through the cult of celebrity.

    Mapplethorpe’s degree of control is evident in that nearly all the portraits in the exhibit are done in a studio with artificial lighting set to his exact specifications. Background and body at times collapse into an inky background through the use of contrasting light, creating a “”floating head”” effect. Such were the cases with the 1986 portrait of sculptor Louise Nevelson and the 1983 portrait of art collector Doris Saatchi.

    Mapplethorpe’s rigorous geometry can be seen in the 1980 portrait of writer Fran Lebowitz. She is holding a lit cigarette. The tip of the ash is lined up precisely with the edge where the background shifts from black to grey. In the 1983 portrait of fashion model Marisa Berenson, her posture and the angle at which she is shot creates a line from the top of her head all the way down the V-line back of her dress, from one corner of the photograph to the other.

    Mapplethorpe pushes the boundaries of portraiture in his 1980 and 1982 photographs of bodybuilder Lisa Lyon. A wide-brimmed hat with a black veil covers most of her face. Instead, her white muscular arms are highlighted against the dark background. In the 1983 portrait of writer Kathy Acker, her face is entirely covered by her hands, while her bare arms and breasts pop in contrast to her black pants.

    Mapplethorpe took many self-portraits, five of which are included in the exhibit. These images not only show variety in self-representation, but also tell a story about his life. The 1975 self-portrait features a Christ-like yet playful Mapplethorpe: arm outstretched, bearded, bare-chested and brandishing a mischievous smile. Mapplethorpe was born Catholic.

    In his 1980 and 1983 portraits, he looks like a character from “”Grease.”” In both images he wears a leather jacket. In one, a cigarette hangs from his mouth. In the other, he holds a switchblade. Yet in another 1980 self-portrait the image is contrasting: he appears in drag, heavily made up, wearing fur. All three images provide a glimpse into homosexual subcultures of the era. Macho fashion was adapted by gay men directly from the straight biker outlaw subculture.

    The 1988 self-portrait is the most dramatic of the five. Over a predominately black background, Mapplethorpe holds a white, skull-headed cane in the foreground. His face appears out of focus in the second plane. At 42, he looks prematurely aged in this memorial for himself. At the time the photo was taken he knew he was dying of AIDS, a disease that devastated the artistic community of the era and took the lives of a number of people Mapplethorpe had photographed.

    Certain portraits portray celebrities who the public may think of in a radically different light today. The 1976 portrait of Arnold Schwarzenegger marks a moment in his career when he was transitioning from bodybuilder to Hollywood actor, long before his more recent transition from actor to politician. A portrait of head and neck alone, the naked, bulging back and neck muscles are still impossible to ignore.

    The 1982 portrait of Kathleen Turner is taken the year after her appearance in the film “”Body Heat.”” In keeping with her public image from that time, the portrait depicts her as a sex goddess in a low-cut nightgown with natural light on her face, suggestive of a “”morning-after”” moment. The image stands in stark contrast with one of Turner’s more recent roles, as Martha, in the Broadway revival of “”Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”” that came to Tucson in 2007. Martha is the opposite of glamorous: bloated, alcoholic, weary and graceless.

    Relationships between sitters play out in certain portraits. In her 1985 portrait from the waist up, singer and actor Grace Jones dons a tribal pattern painted directly on her skin by muralist Keith Haring for a performance at the “”alternative”” disco, Paradise Garage. Haring’s portrait is also included in the exhibition, as is a portrait of Andy Warhol: the person who introduced Jones and Haring to each other. Although their portraits are not exhibited side by side, a comparison between the three presents a common problematic of race, class and gender. In this case, whiteness and maleness escape objectification (both artists are fully clothed), while blackness and femaleness collapse into a dramatic exoticization of the “”other.””

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