Flowers And S&M: New Mapplethorpe Exhibit Not For The Meek
“Robert Mapplethorpe: XYZ” showcases 39 photographs from three of Mapplethorpe’s portfolios:
- "X" (published 1978): photos of homosexual sadomasochistic scenes
- "Y" (1978): flower still lifes
- "Z" (1981): nude portraits of African American men
LACMA’s exhibit intermixes the photos from his portfolios into one larger collage, neatly-arranged in horizontal rows on dark red walls.
In every photo, Mapplethorpe plays with shadows and light to cast a gradient of shades in the black and white photos.
One photo that stands out is a straight-on shot of a man’s nude backside. A shadow splits the male subject in half to create a two-toned body. The photo captures elements from all three portfolios on exhibit: race, suspended beauty and the eroticized male body.
LACMA and the Getty’s joint acquisition of Mapplethorpe’s works and their decision to simultaneously host different Mapplethorpe exhibits suggest a change in public perception from that of 20 years ago.
After Mapplethorpe died in 1989, the National Endowment for the Arts funded a solo traveling exhibition called “The Perfect Moment” that included explicit photos from his X series. The exhibition ignited questions about public funding for the arts and whether photos should be censored if some people find the material offensive.
Washington D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery of Art refused to show the exhibit. The Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati did, however, and the Center and its director, Dennis Barrie, were prosecuted on obscenity charges. When a jury acquitted the Center and Barrie, defense lawyers celebrated the preservation of First Amendment rights.
Still, titters and gasps can be heard echoing in the small, one-room gallery at LACMA.
Let's not sugar coat it: Mapplethorpe’s photos are graphic. There are plenty of crotch shots of male genitalia poking out of dress pants and images of men on tables in head-scratching bondage positions. What's important to remember though is that the intent behind them is not to shock but to stir questions.
The photos explore juxtapositions in the arts, showcasing how differences in composition and content can create fetish and fear of the unfamiliar in a viewer.