Monday, November 23, 2009

Mapplethorpe writ small

You probably know artist Robert Mapplethorpe for his very large, mostly stylized and often sexually explicit photographs all produced between the late 1970’s and his death in 1989. The show currently at the Henry Art Gallery, Polaroids: Mapplethorpe, in contrast, comes from an earlier period in the artist’s life and is a selection of some 1,500 photographs made with Polaroid materials between 1970 and 1975. Although not the work for which he’s famous, it’s interesting when viewed as an illustration of how he got from here to there, and as part of the journey in Mapplethorpe’s evolution as a photographer.

These pieces are on a much smaller scale than those other works as, indeed, they are Polaroids. There are also a few still lifes among the photographs, as well as the portraits and nudes that are clear precursors to what will become his more famous work. I was lucky enough to see the exhibit with my cousin, who has a professional artist’s perspective on light and composition and sees things differently than I might. I especially liked how she pointed out Mapplethorpe’s juxtaposition of the hard and the soft (an elevator’s metal gate against curves of flesh) and his ability to capture the vulnerability of relationship, in whatever form (two lovers in a series of four snapshots).

Not all of the photographs are exceptional, but as a body of work and when viewed in the context of Robert Mapplethorpe’s larger career, I think that the show is definitely worth a look. The Henry is the last stop on an international tour, so be sure to catch the exhibit before it leaves town on January 31, 2010.

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