It is time for the obligatory post of thankfulness. So who better to talk about than Robert Mapplethorpe and Nan Goldin? These two artists may not be the first who come to mind when you gather around the table and think about your blessings—hopefully some combination of love, good health and family—but if I move deeper, towards the central theme of those blessings, I think that an open eyed appreciation of the physical body, the pleasures and pains it can bring and the connection it affords us, are actually the perfect themes for a thanksgiving. Today, I am thankful for daring artists, for troublemakers, for people who refused shame or false piety and intertwined visual and physical pleasure. This is art that makes me thankful to be alive, in all my flawed and messy glory.
Currently on display at LACMA are Mapplehorpe’s X,Y and Z Portfolios, hung staggered above one another, like lines of free verse. Augmenting the literary sense of the work, the photographs are displayed with their portfolio cases and the original writings that were published with them: poems by Patti Smith and Paul Schmidt, and an essay by Edmund White. In this installation, beyond marveling at his formal skills, I understood the depth of Mapplethorpe’s classicism and the continuity between his darkly sexual still lives, the fragility of the body engaged in S&M rituals and the well-loved surface and forms of the black male nudes. Each portfolio tells a compelling story of it’s own, but together they are a revelation.
I am in Seattle for Thanksgiving, and have had the chance to visit the Seattle Art Museum’s survey show Elles:Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris which is accompanied by Elles:SAM, a major reinstallation of the museum’s own collections of modern and contemporary art that highlights the work of women artists. I’m going to save the feminist polemic for another day, but LA take note: your REI wearing sister to the north is ahead of you on this one.
Nan Goldin’s Heartbeat installation took me by surprise, not so much because it contains daringly explicit images of sex and nudity, but because I was so enraptured by a subject that, in the hands of a less sensitive photographer, could easily have been sleazy or dull. Bjork’s soundtrack seduced me into sitting down, but the unfolding stories of different couples kept me engaged. Without idealizing, air-brushing or simplifying, she shows the viewer the casual choreography of intimacy and the way people’s bodies and lives interlock. Yes, there is an aspect of voyeurism, but Goldin’s photos are a lesson in the forms and flavors of love–a lesson at least as old as Plato’s Symposium and still a relevant one. Especially at Thanksgiving.