Twenty five years ago art went on trial in a small mid-western town and won acquittal. That’s when Dennis Barrie, director of the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati, was indicted for showing photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s “X Portfolio” of sexual practices – including bondage, dominance, submission and sadomasochism.
Unexpectedly the conservative town that indicted him found him not guilty. It was a triumph for controversial art everywhere. And to celebrate the anniversary, Steven Matijcio, current curator at the Contemporary Arts Center has assembled a show called “After the Moment: Reflections on Robert Mapplethorpe,” to direct attention to Mapplethorpe’s impact on artists.
Exhibit examples includes Sally Mann’s photograph “The Wet Bed,” an image of one of her children looking up from bed he wet nude. Mann converted a child’s shame into fine art. This is not unlike Mapplethorpe’s photos of nude males in defenseless states.
It’s a common mistake, thought, to think that Mapplethorpe’s lens art only portrayed male nudes. His nude image “Lisa Lyon,” first World Women’s Bodybuilding Champion, is a kind of Venus de Milo with arms. Instead of demure, Lisa stands with her arms thrust high above her head with an exultant air.
It’s odd that so many take Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic images as erotic because his most erotic images describe neither male nor female. They’re the images of flowers. Maybe it’s because the stamen and pistil in his photos resemble the male sex organs that give them their sexually charged air. Consider Mapplethorpe’s shot of a Calla Lily in bloom, which shows the pistil poking up from within its petals and appearing to pulsate, or his portrait of a tall and erect herbaceous plant known as Jack-In-The-Pulpit, which comes across as a vision of virility.. Then consider Mapplethorpe’s “Man in a Polyester Suit, with the figure’s penis poking out of his fly. Granted eroticism is in the eye of the beholder, but public indecency usually comes with a misdemeanor charge.
Talk about flower power. When Mapplethorpe’s photos of plants don’t come across as erotic, they appear downright ethereal. Maybe it’s the sheen that gives them their otherworldly air, as if the other side of his dark side is this lustrous part that lights his subject from within, the kind that out-glows halos.
Mapplethorpe’s “Orchid” is like that. Looking at it is like looking into a night sky where everything is unmarred and perfect. What you see set against a blackened space is a lone white flower, its blossom like a head, its petals like arms. Mapplethorpe said it, himself: “I look for the perfection of form. I do this in portraits, in photographs of penises, in photographs of flowers.”