Monday 29 February 2016

Mapplethorpe's 'Lowell Smith' (1981)

Yesterday I visited the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle to see their exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs. While unsurprisingly, the choice of artworks were conservative to say the least, they were, of course, nonetheless striking.

The image below was one that particularly caught my attention. I am interested in the white plinth, reminiscent of minimalist sculpture (such as the L beams of Robert Morris), being gripped by a pair of black hands. Are the hands holding onto the plinth to prevent the rest of the body from falling? Are they trying to tear it down? Are they picking it up? putting it down? Are the hands on display? Is the plinth a part of the artwork or it is merely the support for it? Throughout the one-room exhibition, it was often the hands of Mapplethorpe's sitters that struck me for the first time. But for some reason, I returned again and again to this particular photograph. Moreover, for some reason, I couldn't get David's 'Death of Marat' painting out of my head.

I have been doing a lot of reading on the feigned neutrality of white, the mask that white wash does to buildings and walls to render them seemingly neutral, unnoticeable, modern (see David Batchelor or Mark Wigley). Perhaps it is the contrast of the darkness of the two hands and arm that draw attention to the bleakness of the plinth, to its colour as noticeably and intentionally opposed to that of the sitter's skin. The hands seem almost like a cry for the viewer to acknowledge this juxtaposition, this difference, this charged nuance.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Lowell Smith (1981)

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