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Review: 'Robert Mapplethorpe: Black, White and Silver' at Marc Selwyn Fine Art

February 19, 2009 |  4:30 pm

Michael RothMarch 9 is the 20th anniversary of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s death. Sept. 24 is the 19th anniversary of the start of the shameful obscenity trial in Cincinnati where a museum director faced prosecution for hosting a traveling exhibition of Mapplethorpe’s art. The sensational event was meant to intimidate, and in some respects its effects are still felt: Last week’s posturing by several U.S. congressmen against including arts jobs in the federal stimulus package could trace its roots to that vulgar battle in the culture war.

At Marc Selwyn Fine Art, “Robert Mapplethorpe: Black, White and Silver” assembles 21 exquisite images shot between 1983 and 1989. The show’s only disappointment is that just 12 are vintage prints; the remaining nine are posthumous prints, issued (and appropriately marked as such) by the estate. Acute precision is integral to this art’s photographic content, so it makes a difference.

A self-referential quality is also important to Mapplethorpe’s voluptuous work. The show’s title, “Black, White and Silver,” partly refers to the photographic medium; although he also worked in color, these are black-and-white silver prints.

Whether torsos, busts or full-length figures, all the photographs are nudes. The models in this selection are white men and women and black men, singly or variously paired, including four photographs of carved marble and cast-metal figurative sculptures. Carefully lighted to accentuate bodily musculature, tissue and veining — whether human or not — their luscious skin coincides with the lush photographic “skin” of the work’s beautifully printed surfaces.

Ken and Tyler They draw you in close, creating an intimate encounter. Sometimes they do it by placing skin against skin — Robert Sherman’s shaved white head seen in profile adjacent to and matching Ken Moody’s shaved black head.

One of the most beautiful works juxtaposes two lithe bodies posed like dancers spooning, heads cropped and arms raised so they’re outside the frame. The figures’ genders are not immediately clear. Close inspection reveals both are men, but their masculinity and femininity blur.

“Ken and Lydia and Tyler” puts two men in mirror-image poses on either side of a woman, who faces front. The ensemble creates an erotic interlace of limbs, which cleverly forms the artist’s monogram, “M.”

Even “Mercury,” a picture of a carved white bust of the fleet-footed Roman messenger of the gods, resonates this way: The role of Mercury — quicksilver — is communication among powerful forces.

“Neck/Livingston” isolates the body in extreme close-up, showing the area between the model’s sternum and chin. It takes a moment to recognize what this subtly lighted, gently undulating, nearly abstract surface is. When you do, its sensual focus on a larynx suddenly speaks: An Adam’s apple — the forbidden fruit — takes shape as a homoerotic pun.

Punning is pivotal to Mapplethorpe’s aesthetic. His formal technique derived from the classic work of Paul Strand, Imogen Cunningham and, perhaps most important, Edward Weston. (Several pictures of Lydia Cheng, a favorite Mapplethorpe model, are clear references to Weston’s cropped nudes.) Their work peeled away the literary and artistic clutter that attached to early 20th century camera work, instead embracing its distinctive qualities in their own right. It came to be known as straight photography.

As a gay man, Mapplethorpe used straight photography to empower precisely those people the straight power structure customarily victimized — blacks, women, homosexuals — as well as to celebrate the human sexual liberty it routinely proscribed. That effrontery is what went on trial in Cincinnati nearly 20 years ago. The case was resolved in the director’s favor, but a final verdict on the larger subject isn’t yet in.

-- Christopher Knight

Marc Selwyn Fine Art, 6222 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., (323) 933-9911, through March 28. Closed Sunday and Monday.

Top: "Michael Roth" (1983), gelatin silver print; bottom: "Ken and Tyler" (1985/printed 2004), gelatin silver print. Credit: Marc Selwyn Fine Art