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17 Dec

Jimmy DeSana’s dark and uncanny transformations of the naked

Disquieting, transgressive and sometimes darkly comic, the Recent York artist’s photographs urged viewers to see the naked form in a recent light

When you’re prone to have encountered the enduring images created by seminal Recent York photographers Robert Mapplethorpe and Peter Hujar throughout the Seventies and Nineteen Eighties, chances are you’ll be less accustomed to the work of their contemporary Jimmy DeSana. Disquieting, transgressive and sometimes darkly comic, DeSana’s idiosyncratic photographs unite a constellation of avant-garde elements from punk and sadomasochism to camp, club culture, and performance art.

In a lot of his most arresting images, the human body is abstracted and objectified, stripped not only of garments but of subjectivity. We’re invited to look at the naked form in a recent light. His 1982 photograph “Marker Cones”, for instance, depicts an anonymous figure crouched crab-like with traffic cones on their hands and feet in a pose that’s balletic and exquisite, yet strangely grotesque. The lurid-coloured gel lighting only adds to the otherworldly quality that characterises a lot of his most striking compositions. Other key works, akin to “Sofa”, “Refrigerator” and “Enema” (all made between 1977 and 1978) conflate unlikely themes of desire and fetishism with domesticity in an uncanny and startling reimagining of the idealised mid-century American interior.

Submission, a retrospective of DeSana’s work which has recently opened on the Brooklyn Museum, brings together greater than 200 works by this often neglected artist, from his early incursions into photography within the late Sixties right until his death from AIDs in 1990. The show’s curator Drew Sawyer reflects on DeSana’s unique visual language and magnificence, teling Dazed: “Mapplethorpe and Hujar practiced in a really traditionally beautiful pictorial photographic mode – turning black and white classic photography towards queer subjects. I feel DeSana was just working in a really different way. He was drawing on surrealism, performance, and darkroom experimentation.” Sawyer continues, “Possibly he was less keen on beauty [than his peers], although I find his photographs beautiful. I feel he was pushing against the form of classicism that was way more dominant. And I feel, partly, that is why it’s taken so long for his work to be integrated inside museums and even galleries.”

Having moved from Atlanta, Georgia to Recent York in 1972, DeSana became immersed within the febrile East Village punk art and recent wave scene, moving in these illustrious, riotous creative circles, taking pictures of his friends including Kathy Acker, Brian Eno, Richard Hell, Kenneth Anger, Debbie Harry amongst many others, yet never cashing in on the cache of celebrity. “Yes, he did album covers and press shots for Blondie and Talking Heads, however the work he made as a part of his artistic output are just about all anonymous figures – the faces are turned away from the camera, they’re dunked in sinks, they’re hidden behind leather masks,” Sawyer says, in a conversation over Zoom. “Whereas I feel a part of the pleasure of Peter Hujar’s work – at the very least the portraits – is seeing Susan Sontag and these figures we are able to recognise from our knowledge of literature, or art, or music; these folks that Hujar was circulating with around in Downtown within the 60s, 70s, and 80s.” The curator emphasises: “DeSana’s work resists that. You’ll be able to’t really have a look at it and feel nostalgic for the particular folks that are in them. His work also sort of resists that form of idea of subjectivity and identity, which I feel also perhaps makes his work a bit bit harder.”

One other element that distinguishes DeSana’s work is its macabre humour. “It doesn’t take itself so seriously, there are a whole lot of visual puns,” Sawyer tells us. After researching DeSana and talking with those that knew him, his sense of humour is something that many remember in regards to the artist. “The one thing everyone mentioned was his humor – very dry and likewise a bit bit dark, which is sensible while you have a look at his work.”

His sense of humour endured even after being diagnosed with HIV. Nonetheless, from there, the tenor of DeSana’s work modified, becoming more abstract and spiritual. Other themes that recur throughout his work include the human figure. “I feel a lot of his work is the body’s relationship to its environment and objects. And this form of slippage between subject and object, I feel is actually essential. He really played with identity in a way that feels through line, so which possibly is why also at a up to date moment, we are able to really discover along with his work a bit bit more.”

Despite being less well-known than a lot of his contemporaries, DeSana’s influence is ubiquitous. “I see it in all places,” says Sawyer, tracing the lineage from DeSana to artists akin to Wolfgang Tillmans and Catherine Opie. “Then there are also so many artists making performative photography involving objects and I don’t know whether or not they’re aware of DeSana’s work or not because there hadn’t been a survey show and a whole lot of people haven’t seen his work in a extremely very long time. But now, there may be a book [accompanying the exhibition] and hopefully, you already know, increasingly more people will have the option to see the work.”

For a better have a look at work on display in Submission take a have a look at the gallery above. 

Submission is running on the Brooklyn Museum until April 16, 2023.

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