Monday, October 12, 2009

Sally Mann, Proud Flesh @Gagosian

JTF (just the facts): A total of 33 black and white images, framed in silver and matted, and hung in three connected gallery rooms on the 4th floor. All of the prints are gelatin silver prints, made from wet collodion negatives; the works are approximately 15x14, and are printed in editions of 5. The negatives were taken between 2003 and 2009. A catalogue of the show is available from the gallery for $75. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: In contrast to the usual photographer/model interaction, something altogether different occurs when a husband or wife photographs his or her spouse, especially when those images are nudes; emotions run higher, deeper vulnerabilities get exposed, and more willing risks get taken. In the history of photography, it has traditionally been the men taking pictures of the women, and there are plenty of superlative examples to recall: Stieglitz and O'Keefe, Strand and Rebecca, Weston and Charis, Callahan and Eleanor, just to name a few; on the flip side, there are few if any examples where the role was reversed - the only one I can come up with is Cunningham's nudes of Roi from the early 1900s, and these pictures were deemed too risque for wider viewing until decades later. Sally Mann is in many ways the perfect photographer to step into this void and take the male nude somewhere new; her unflinching portraits of her young children are profound evidence of her willingness to take some chances to explore the boundaries of how we see one another.
Over the period of about five years, Mann took pictures of her husband Larry, whose strong body was showing the signs of aging and the results of a battle with muscular dystrophy. The shadowy images are mostly indirect fragments: arms and backs, hips and buttocks, legs and elbows, feet and folds of skin, photographed in angled natural light, leaving plenty of darkness and melancholy. The settings are sparse: lying on a metal table, sitting on a stool, resting on a striped mattress with the stuffing coming out, or walking on a patterned Oriental rug. And if the compositions weren't striking enough in and of themselves, Mann's 19th century process adds yet another layer of timeless complexity to the works: many of the images are covered with chemical drips and splotches, stains and rips, and all manner of chance imperfections that often decorate each picture with swirls and streaks; others have been bleached out to a wince inducing whiteness.

These pictures are a far cry from beefcake portraits of men with ripped abs and massive shoulders; they tackle head on the questions of aging, waning strength, and male vulnerability. But unlike the unflinching self portraits of John Coplans, which address similar subject matter, these images are undeniably the gaze of a wife at her husband, which changes the emotional setting completely. What I think is most remarkable about these pictures is their amazing sense of honor; there are no longer any secrets between these two people, anything that was once hidden has long ago been revealed. The intimate pictures expose Larry's frailties with respect and trust; they are images seen through the eyes of someone who loves this wiry and withered aging man.

Overall, these revealing and often unexpectedly beautiful works have the feeling of a contract: Mann was taking something from her husband, who gave it willingly, but not without giving up something of himself in the bargain; the emotional pitch is so consistently high that the show is a little exhausting. As a male viewer, I think there is one additional level of meaning here: a sense of wisdom shared, a look into the future and what it might mean to get older, and an example of how to bear those years with dignity and grace.
Collector's POV: No printed price list was available for this show, but I was told the images were "about $20000" each. While part of our collection is currently made up of female nudes, these images are really the first male nudes from any period in the history of photography that seem like they could fit within our existing group. I particularly enjoyed Ponder Heart, 2007 (a back and hand in the bright sunlight), The Nature of Loneliness, 2008 (a back), Amor Revealed, 2007 (the curve of a hip, reminiscent of a nude by Ruth Bernhard), and Hephaestus, 2008 (a frontal pose like a Greek god). And overall, with no pun intended, I expect these works will age extremely well.

Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:

  • Review @FT (here)
  • Artist statement @Conscientious (here)
  • Book review @5B4 (here)
Through October 31st

Gagosian Gallery
980 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10075

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