Triptych (Eyes of One on Another)
by arwulf arwulf
From the March, 2019 issue
Among the most intriguing entries in Robert Mapplethorpe's photographic soft parade of faces, flowers, and naked bodies is a black-and-white study of a ragged-edged American flag. The windblown undulation of the tattered banner is frozen to perfection, its field of stars backlit by the sun. Studying this image while absorbed in silent contemplation, it occurs to me that Mapplethorpe is as American as America itself.
Mapplethorpe's artworks are glimpses of his subconscious terrain, revealed with unabashed honesty. His early sculptures and collages mix dualistic Catholic/Satanic iconography with emblems of a fascination with bizarre Coney Island sideshow grotesquerie. Sexuality informs nearly all of his work. Orchids viewed up close reveal themselves as moist botanical genitalia. To Mapplethorpe, everything was art, including and perhaps most especially himself.
A trail of spontaneous Polaroid snapshots and meticulously arranged Hasselblad portraits form a diary of his hyper- promiscuous adventurism. Framing and displaying lurid studies in consensual sadomasochistic mischief was Mapplethorpe's way of expanding the parameters of art while rebelling against the impacted conformism and rigid conventionality of his Eisenhower-era upbringing. Widespread rejection of those constraints became prevalent throughout our culture from the 1960s onward. "Art is an accurate statement of the time in which it is made," said Mapplethorpe. "I went into photography because it seemed like the perfect vehicle for commenting on the madness of today's existence."
In 1990, only months after his death from AIDS, a touring Mapplethorpe retrospective titled The Perfect Moment drew fire from right-wing conservatives for its homoerotic content and led to a highly publicized court case, in which Cincinnati Arts Center director Dennis Barrie was put on trial for obscenity and ultimately acquitted. In an act of solidarity, a Fear No Art exhibit was mounted at Ann Arbor's original Performance Network, where the public was invited to post written responses to a potent array of taboo-toppling works by local artists (including myself).
Bryce Dessner, who was living in Cincinnati at the time, rose to prominence with the
indie rock band The National and has since developed into a composer of orchestral and chamber works that place him in league with Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Dessner's vivid memories of the politically charged controversy surrounding the Mapplethorpe exhibit in Cincinnati have inspired his score for a multimedia tribute entitled Triptych (Eyes of One on Another).
The performance features projected images by Mapplethorpe with poetry by Korde Arrington Tuttle, Essex Hemphill, and Mapplethorpe's best friend, Patti Smith. Their words are voiced by Roomful of Teeth, an edgy, stunningly well-coordinated ensemble, highly skilled in multicultural vocal techniques. The UMS-sponsored world premiere of Triptych (Eyes of One on Another) in full theatrical staging takes place at the Power Center on March 15 and 16.
[Originally published in March, 2019.]
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