This exhibition is intended to be a transgression, a provocation, a critical inquiry, and a response that is both for and against this moment.
The invitation: When WPA invited me to curate this exhibit, I was slightly taken aback. I immediately thought, as a Black queer lesbian woman, what is my responsibility here to myself and to the public? I decided to respond to this moment in the WPA's exhibition history by looking deeply into the periphery of what was happening at the time, to satisfy my own interests and challenge the viewer. When the WPA, after two months of searching, told me they had almost no archival materials about The Perfect Moment,anexhibitionhosted in their own institution in 1989, I felt an opportunity to transgress the historical event.
The catalogue as object: I immediately remembered that in my first meeting with the staff of WPA in January, Peter Nesbett, Executive Director, gave me their sole copy of The Perfect Momentcatalogue, originally placed in the gallery in support of the exhibition and worn ragged from years of use. I'm thinking of the hands that touched this object. This antiquated book worn by years of viewing is the only place where these images can be seen or found by those outside of a contemporary museological engagement. I think of this catalogue as mediating the intimacy of looking at these images in the present. You must hold the book/object and you must wait for someone else to finish their viewing to begin yours. I like this tension in relation to the lines outside the original WPA building when the show opened in 1989, on 7th and D Streets, formed by an eager audience who carried the desire to simply look.
A gesture: This exhibition concerns itself more with the gesture that WPA extended to Mapplethorpe than with the exhibition of images itself. WPA rescued the show, found funding to mount the exhibition, and provided a space for these visually hostile images. The themes that emerge from this gesture and The Perfect Moment exhibition move away from Mapplethorpe, in fact, I am aware that many other artists of the time could have benefited from such investment. Here, I am hoping to create a new set of conversations which are urgent in this moment, in order to move us forward. I'm interested not only in what is happening in the art world now, but also in what took place before Mapplethorpe, and even more importantly, what happened in the periphery of The Perfect Moment in 1989--specifically the work of Mapplethorpe's peers, many overshadowed by his exhibition and market success.
The living artist: With D'Angelo Lovell Williams, the sole living artist featured within There Are No Shadows Here: The Perfect Moment at 30, I am interested in pushing forward a conversation regarding new forms of censorship of photographic images in the age of the internet, rather than within galleries or museum exhibitions. Now, censorship may occur through algorithms, limiting the possibilities of showing work online.
Black Gay men and self-subjecthood: I aim to extend the exhibition space to someone producing images of interiority, in relationship to Mapplethorpe's controversial figurations of Black gay men. What does it mean for those men to speak for themselves, pushing the boundaries of intersubjective intimacy from within the image, as the subject? Can there be a moment for these men to invoke a critique of the images that place their bodies in stasis, in response to being figured by an art world centered around the white gaze? Can there be space to access agency and the intentional untethering of the image from the subject? I want to consider individual agency and release versus representation of a group.
What comes before: Through considering the images of George Dureau, I am interested in what comes before Mapplethorpe's investment in the rigorous museological and gallery/art world system in a quest for fame and dominance. What does it mean to make images that lack the end game of exhibition? With Dureau, I am looking at the positioning of the figure / body / proximity to societally named abject subjects, in order to give them more agency, more personhood. What does it mean to have your community, your friends as photographic subject? Dureau is a photographer with an affection for Classical sculpture. His eye treats men, both white and Black, as sculpture-adjacent bodies which replicate that post-ruin godliness replete with the retention of elegant power. Missing limbs, fine as marble and flesh. Positionality and beauty collide and rupture--here the body is captured, forcing us to negotiate between subjects and to reevaluate the aesthetics of power.
Positionality: What does it mean to allow the subject to perform, in comparison to forcibly posing a subject? Mapplethorpe extends many of Dureau's formal cues, but evacuates the personhood of his Black subjects, who are presented as fleshly shells of bodies. Dureau, on the other hand, is strongly grounded in New Orleans as place, a city which pushes past notions of decency.
The Presentations: The opening weekend featured a series of presentations and roundtables which will become a part of the exhibition once they conclude. Curator and art historian Alex Fialho reflected on the work of Glenn Ligon, Robert Mapplethorpe, and the NEA; poet and art historian Mia Kang reflected on the work of Alvin Baltrop; curator and art historian Oluremi C. Onabanjo reflected on the work of Rotimi Fani Kayode, and I reflected on the work of Marlon Riggs in relation to my artistic practice. Roundtables featuring members of the communities depicted in Mapplethorpe's images will be invited to provide deep readings of images from relevant monographs--George Dureau's New Orleans (1985) and Robert Mapplethorpe's The Black Book (1986) -- as well as images of SM and leather in Mapplethorpe's The Perfect Moment. Audio recordings of these presentations will then be installed in the space, and books referenced by the artists and photographers will be placed within the exhibition.
The flowers: And then there are the flowers. They are objects, figure, and body. Their beauty is presented in the space, but we must not forget that this proximity comes at the cost of their death. I want us to look at something that is dying gracefully... Placed on pedestals, the flowers become bodies, half-living bodies on view in the space.
On the periphery of Mapplethorpe: I'm using Mapplethorpe as a Trojan horse here. It is my opinion that his work is deeply entangled with the movement of social capital within the art world. Body and subculture become capital in these photographic objects. Subculture becomes figured as art world provocation. There's no sense of place here. The bodies are too fine, captured in a deep stasis that cannot be moved. Mapplethorpe's shadows are mostly absent, leaving the foreground to seduce us immediately but not in the long run, leaving the subjects themselves on fragile grounds.There are no shadows here. On the periphery, I am thinking very much about what is to the left and right of this moment. The silhouettes -- the mass -- darkness and Blackness -- I want to take this moment as an opportunity to flesh out the details which emerge from an imagined space.
This presentation cannot live solely in this building, in this space. The exhibition is a prompt to work through and come to your own conclusion about these new associations and forms of connection.
ABOUT THE CURATOR
Tiona Nekkia McClodden is a visual artist, filmmaker, and curator whose work explores and critiques issues at the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and social commentary. She is a 2019 Whitney Biennial artist and recently collaborated on the Stonewall 50 Celebration at the Whitney Museum of American Art. McClodden's interdisciplinary approach traverses documentary film, experimental video, sculpture, and sound installations. She has exhibited and screened work at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, MOCA LA, MCA Chicago, and MOMA PS1, among others. McClodden has been awarded the 2019 Guggenheim Fellowship in Fine Arts, the 2018-19 Keith Haring Fellow in Art and Activism at Bard College, the 2017 Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award, and the 2016 Pew Fellowship in the Arts in Philadelphia. She lives and works in North Philadelphia and is represented by Company Gallery in NYC.