Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Robert Mapplethorpe: Testing Memory

I was in desperate need for distraction a few weeks ago and decided to catch Robert Mapplethorpe's Polaroids exhibition at Modern Art Oxford in its last week. Like most people, I came to Mapplethorpe via his close association Patti Smith, but I enjoyed the show for a whole host of unexpected reasons.
Think Mapplethorpe and think punk rock, polaroids and sado-masochism - all instantly gratifying hits. And while there was plenty of that among the 96 shots in the show, I was surprised how many lonely still lifes there were - single subject shots of dusty sideboards and worn mattresses from friend's apartments in early 1970s New York.

These images dealt with unexpected emotions; of nostalgia, contemplation and grief. Arranged as respite to his more aggressively sexual snapshots, they felt charged with a negative force, as if you could sense the absence of each object's owner(s).

Maybe I was looking for this. Having spent 36 hours by my Mum's bedside before she passed away in the early hours of the previous Saturday, I had found myself with plenty of time to dwell on similar small details and inanimate objects: the folds of her bed sheets, the patterns of the hospital curtains, the arrangement of belongings on her dresser. Regardless of the prompting, I felt like Mapplethorpe was looking at his immediate surroundings through a similar filter. 

I was lucky enough to interview Patti Smith a few years ago and she told me how she had taken to visiting the houses and graveyards of the writers and artists that she admired to photograph the tools of their creativity - the writing implements of William Blake and such like. I wonder now if that was a fascination that dated back to her time together with Mapplethorpe, or whether she was belatedly picking up on the methods of her former lover? 

Soon after that exhibition, the ever-generous Bill Guy recommended I take a look at the work of Uta Barth, a beautiful and rather understated photographer working in Los Angeles. As her website puts it, "her interiors and landscapes engage the viewer in an almost subliminal way, testing memory, intellect and habitual response." That seemed to crystallise what I had felt towards Mapplethorpe's still lifes but also left me sad that the Oxford exhibition and accompanying book had all been promoted in a rather one-dimensional way - even looking for a polaroid to accompany this post, I found plenty of his S&M shots and portraits but none of the more modest, contemplative pieces. Sure, people like to be titillated and provoked but where is the harm in presenting a fuller picture of an artist with more to offer? To me it was clear that sex sells but memories last.

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