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A curator and her compatriot

February 20, 2004|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

In 1993, Catherine Opie made a brilliant photograph that could be the poster image for the dramatic civil rights issue of gay marriage. A stick-figure drawing, like a child's earnest scrawl, showed two smiling girls holding hands in front of a cheerful house. This sentimental image of innocent love had been carved with a knife blade into the freckled skin of Opie's own back. Its bloody, scarified trail offers eloquent testimony to the complex visceral anguish within familial life.

At Marc Selwyn Fine Art, Opie has organized a show of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-89), whose work would be historic if only because its frequent homosexual subject matter slammed the empty closet door and nailed it shut. Given her own photographic sensibility, she's an ideal curator for his.

"Pictures, Pictures" brings together 44 Mapplethorpe works from the '70s and '80s, arrayed with sharp insight and great style. Opie rarely strays far from ideas of home and communities in her own photographs; her Mapplethorpe show underscores similar -- though differently constructed -- ideas in his. Autobiography moves to the foreground.

Mapplethorpe's pictures are displayed almost in the manner of a photographic essay. It reads from left to right around the room, beginning and ending with self-portraits. They frame examples of every kind of image Mapplethorpe made: friends, lovers, celebrities, the demimonde, children, sculptures, pornography, flowers, etc.

In this context, the selection is like peering inside the jumble of an artist's head. A shoulder-length portrait of bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger, posed like a Roman bust, is typical of Mapplethorpe's formal references to art history. And it shows his unexpected take on things: Schwarzenegger was famous for his body, but Mapplethorpe's portrait omits the muscles.

A volley of hope tinged with despair attends the show's famous opening image -- a tattered American flag, flapping in an unseen wind and illuminated from behind by a hidden sun. This symbol of fragile liberty is hung next to two fragmentary self-portraits, both made from body parts.

The first is an intense close-up of Mapplethorpe's careworn eyes, one in shadow and the other brightly illuminated. Perception is condensed into equal, if conflicted, territories of darkness and light.

The second shows a youthful, casually outstretched arm. The pose recalls the arm of Jesus laid out on the cross, just before the nail was driven through flesh. Elegance and serenity foreshadow suffering and redemption.

A second version of this picture, not in the show, includes the artist's grinning head. Opie's choice of this limb-only rendition gives quiet testimony to something other than grandiose presumptions of persecution.

Mapplethorpe was raised in the Roman Catholic Church; he understood the power of imagery as well as any pope has. Historically, the church's iconoclastic Protestant enemies demonized images of any kind as Satan's handiwork. Sound familiar? Mapplethorpe's infamous 1978 self-portrait with a bullwhip protruding from his backside is not only a frank portrait of sadomasochistic sexuality. It's also a blunt description of the devil, complete with tail.

It's no surprise that Mapplethorpe became a focus of Christian-right animus during the Reagan-era culture wars, when conservative Protestants led the political assault against his imagery. The "devil" photograph hangs at the end of the show, next to a self-portrait of the artist dressed in a silk robe and velvet slippers, seated in a grand chair, his face emaciated and ravaged by AIDS. It was among his last works.

If this image looks familiar, it's because Mapplethorpe's erudite work is informed by the history of art. Here, the pose and wardrobe recall Cezanne's "Portrait of Achille Emperaire" (1869-70); that painting shows Cezanne's friend and fellow artist -- a bony, misshapen dwarf clad in robe and slippers -- enthroned as grandly as Napoleon in red velvet and ermine.

Like Cezanne's painting, Mapplethorpe's photograph depicts a socially marginal, lowlife character in a composition associated with archetypal images of authority. That's one key to understanding his entire output as an artist. As a curator, Opie deftly illuminates the work of a compatriot -- and perhaps her own as well.

Marc Selwyn Fine Art, 6222 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., (323) 933-9911, through March 13. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

A stroll along

the boardwalk

The typological photographs of the German duo Bernd and Hilla Becher have been so influential for so long -- more than a quarter-century -- that, at this late date, it's difficult to imagine anything fresh coming from their example. Yet Swiss artist Beat Streuli manages a bit of that in a new two-channel video projection at LACE.

As at his recently closed solo show of monumental photographs at the Roberts & Tilton Gallery (his L.A. debut), Streuli's subject is people in crowds. At LACE, that means pedestrians on the Venice boardwalk.

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