September 2, 2011

Edward Mapplethorpe - The Variations

Skittering, free-form lines splinter into blurs of metallic light; part alchemy, part action painting – this is chaos, barely controlled, and without the burden of photographic appearance these images become a trace of their own creation. Each is an acutely sensitive record of the particular moment in which it was made, crystallised as these singular objects at the conceptual limits of the medium. The Variations is a relatively recent body of work by New York artist Edward Mapplethorpe.

You may well recognise the name; he is the younger brother of Robert, a one-time assistant and collaborator who brought technical polish to what had been a previously rough-hewn vision. This family association left a deep artistic confusion, however, and that, coupled with an addiction to heroin set Mapplethorpe’s creative development back for many years. He has gradually been reasserting his own identity though, with a convincing study of the photograph as a material presence, something approaching the sculptural in its understanding of weight and density. His work belongs to that rare order of photographic experience that stands entirely on its own terms. They are not images of something, not spaces for content, but the naked architecture of a process becoming an image, the fact of its visible existence.

It’s something of a risk even to call this work photography, breaching as he is our (already tenuous) expectation of how pictures function. Of course, it is photographic, almost explicitly so, and not just because of the materials, but because of how they are used. This is what undermines the seemingly inevitable (and not unfounded) comparison of Mapplethorpe’s work with painting. The image is the result of a directed chemical action, there is a knife-edge of chance involved. The differences are important though and revealing, because whereas in painting the action is mostly linear – that is, a decision happens before and after the mark is put down – these are not marks made. Rather they are expressions of an open-ended process, formed by a totally different relationship to the intentionality of the artist. Painting is an accumulation in time; it stands in layers as a kind of sediment. Mapplethorpe’s use of photography (a writing in light) suggests an action that is instantaneous, but expanded outwards – the proliferation of a dizzying optical complexity.

His work exists in a very provocative space, being defiantly abstract in its articulation and yet having an utterly immediate perceptual effect. What he produces is not an image describing the contours of a prior reality, but an encounter that is in itself real, being without reference, a closed realm of forces activated by looking, by the nuance of attention. In this way, they are incomplete, lacking the sufficiency of an image, in exchange for something that is in its way just as commanding, formed by a tension between a set of values that are at once the antithesis of photography and its daring confirmation.

See more of this work here, and try this article for more background on Mapplethorpe.