The show spanned twenty-five years of his career, featuring celebrity portraits , self-portraits , interracial figure studies, floral still lifes, homoerotic images, and collages. On tour, in the summer of , the exhibition became the centerpiece of a controversy concerning federal funding of the arts and censorship. The Perfect Moment covered all aspects of the photographer's career from the late s to
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Mapplethorpe and the culture wars
Twenty-five years ago, art was put on trial in a highly publicized and political showdown. He had risen to national prominence through his black-and-white depictions of s New York, including celebrities Andy Warhol, Philip Glass, Deborah Harry , nudes, and graphic depictions of sadomasochism. The show was not for everyone, but Barrie and the CAC board felt its artistic importance could hardly be questioned. The show was especially timely considering Mapplethorpe had died of complications from AIDS just a few months earlier, raising interest in the artist and his portfolio. The exhibit originally showed at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Philadelphia, where it generated some local concerns about a few of the images—particularly some of the more sexually graphic ones, as well as a pair featuring nude children—though generally the show received enthusiastic reviews. But as the survey made its way to Ohio, touring through Chicago and Washington, D. The city was by most measures more conservative than average, prohibiting peep shows, adult bookstores, and strip clubs.
It was an era stiffened by the hidebound social mores championed by the likes of the Republican senator Jesse Helms, among many others. The political landscape crackled with the rancor of conservatism, and cultural institutions were not insulated from the din. Responding promptly, the Washington Project for the Arts—an alternative contemporary art space—agreed to present the nearly thwarted exhibition. It opened some weeks later in July. We are now thirty years removed from that presentation of The Perfect Moment , and WPA has mounted a sharp exhibition marking its anniversary. Deftly conceived by the artist Tiona Nekkia McClodden, a curator whose rigorous engagement with key antecedents of queer life and art continues to prove bracing and insightful, There Are No Shadows Here: The Perfect Moment at 30 is a part-symposium, part-exhibition project that examines the vexing artistic legacy of Robert Mapplethorpe. Absent, too, is the hagiographic varnish often applied to projects of this sort, masking a more deeply felt portrait of the artist beneath its surface. This is not a retrospective endeavor, a backward glance on the life he led and the art that issued from it.
As for the personae, Mapplethorpe by all accounts was a good boy harboring bad boy fantasies. Rather, his various guises — militia man, gay sex fiend, femme fatale — reveal a committed exploration of Catholic themes familiar throughout art history: the debasement and transcendence of the flesh; transgression, punishment and confession; agony and ecstasy. For Mapplethorpe, the greatest metaphor for this conversion was sex — more precisely, sadomasochistic sex, which he pursued most intensively as a voyeur and a participant during a three-year period in the late s. This stringent artistic process forged a common aesthetic within the total body of work, placing flowers and cocks — as the artist often insisted — on equal visual footing. More importantly, it highlights a taller totem of meaning: Mapplethorpe saw all social life as theatre.