Robert Mapplethorpe was an aesthete’s aesthete, trying with each photograph he took to capture a kind of formal blissfulness that shreds philosophy, politics, conjecture, and any other form of bull-shit standing in the way of that “perfect moment” when what you see is exactly and horrifyingly and gleefully what you get, devoid of values, faith, hope, charity, whatever. Through what he was able to freeze with a lens, he excavated morals and manners, setting one form of beauty next to another form of beauty next to a form of horror or porn or fever, all of those juxtapositions intended both to provoke and to satirize the process of provocation. He was after what the great novelist Vladimir Nabokov describes as “aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.”
That quote is from the afterward Nabokov penned for Lolita, his 1958 novel that set off a culture war pretty similar to the one Mapplethorpe’s work did in Cincinnati and the rest of the United States in 1990. In that essay, Nabokov tries to explain why he wanted to write a novel about a suave and sophisticated pedophile, and basically what it all comes down to, he writes, is that desire to transcend the way the world categorizes/judges/labels/pigeonholes freaks and others into internment camps of the mind, segregating the good from the bad so that the good can do whatever the hell the good wants. By focusing on what should never be focused on (at least according to convention), and by using all his skills as an incredibly deft and nuanced writer, Nabokov, in Lolita and other books, is able to convey a world that somehow escapes reason and judgement in favor of an understanding that goes beyond pity and even empathy into a realm of switches and gambits: you are in the mind of Humbert Humbert in Lolita. Nabokov skillfully uses the techniques of fiction writing to get you there, and you are implicated in Humbert’s desires and in his everyday life. You see what he sees, and the world is forever changed if you take it all seriously enough to let that happen. If you don’t, you often get pissed off and want to coordinate a big old book burning.
What the book-burners and others don’t understand, or even want to fathom, is that reading and enjoying books like Lolita doesn’t mean you become a pedophile or evil through that process of consideration and transferred perception. It means you become a thinker instead of a denier, a philosopher who has nothing left to say, which might be the best version of a philosopher ever.
Mapplethorpe’s work in “The Perfect Moment,” the exhibit at the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati that caused all the furor in 1990, did much the same moral and aesthetic work that Nabokov’s novel did, only in pictures and not in words. Like Nabokov, Mapplethorpe is a total formalist, using conventional skills and techniques to get at the unconventional. In the 1990 show at the CAC, Mapplethorpe’s accomplishment was a little trickier because he was after a more powerful and immediate transaction: photographs cause a bigger stir because they force the issue. They succinctly bridge the gap between orchid and bull-whip-in-an-asshole. And once your eyes see that connection your brain can focus on the outrageous juxtaposition, the outrageousness itself, or your eyes and brain together can start figuring how meaningful/meaningless most aesthetic and moral distinctions we make are. It’s pretty much an arbitrary and silly set of codes Mapplethorpe is spotlighting in his work, the majority of which is not about erections, but about how beautiful and strange everything on earth is. And that “figuring out” is what Nabokov calls “aesthetic bliss,” and what Mrs. Russell, in a letter to the Contemporary Art Center dated March 29, 1990, calls “degradation and perversion and not at all art.”
Mrs. Russell’s letter is encased in a vitrine along with many other letters received by the CAC in 1990, at the center of “After the Moment: Reflections on Robert Mapplethorpe,” which runs through March 13, 2016, currently at the CAC. Letters, voicing both outrage and support, are displayed side by side in the middle of the exhibit, along with newspaper articles and other ephemera (including a menu from a restaurant that featured a Mapplethorpe-inspired dessert comprised of a frozen banana covered in chocolate). Those displays chronicling the kerfuffle are the kickiest aspect of the show; you get to read hilariously mean and toxic letters in beautiful old-lady calligraphy, as well as see who was classy or not.
On a couple walls is a selection of Mapplethorpe’s greatest hits, and on most of the others are works done by contemporary artists from Cincinnati and other places reflecting on Mapplethorpe’s legacy, and on the legacy of the controversy around the obscenity trial here in town that eventually determined that Mapplethorpe wasn’t a pornographer. The list of artists is long and impressive: “Terry Berlier, Michael Bill Smith, Mary Carothers, Barbara Crawford, Alison Crocetta, Matthew Dayler, Molly Donnermeyer, Anita Douthat, Jenny Fine, Jesse Fox, Rosalind Fox Solomon, Mark Harris, Laura Hartford, Stephen Irwin, Mark Flanigan and Joseph Winterhalter, Kevin T. Kelly, Cal Kowal, Anthony Luensman, Merrilee Luke-Ebbeler, Leslie Lyons, Sally Mann, Maurice Mattei, Joel McDonald, William Messer, Emily Hanako Momohara, Todd Pavlisko, Arno Rafael Minkinnen, Kristin Rogers, Katy Rucker, Mark Sawrie, Brad Austin Smith, Sheida Soleimani, Tim Stegmaier, Jordan Tate, Diana Duncan Holmes and Timothy Riordan, Peter Huttinger and Tony Walsh, Joey Versoza, Joel Whitaker, Michael Wilson, Joel-Peter Witkin, Jeffrey Wolin, Anna Wu.” The list of co-curators who solicited works from the artists is not as long but just as impressive: “Matt Distel, Dennis Harrington, William Messer, Steven Matijcio, Maria Seda-Reeder, Yasmeen Siddiqui, Betsy Stirratt and Catherine Ann Johnson-Roehr.”
Sadly all the efforts at reckoning with and registering Mapplethorpe’s meaning are kind of overcome by the sheer amount of offerings. “The Perfect Moment” gets turned into a perfect mess, with works hanging too closely together, and too many title-cards telling us what inspired what. It’s like a bunch of personal essays exploded, merging in and out of each other. I took notes, but to run a test I tried to force the issue and remember what works truly popped out of the masses, and it turns out to be for me two pieces: Todd Plavisko’s “Untitled (a Portrait of Louis Sirkin),” and Terry Berlier’s “Split.” Plavisko’s simple portrait of one of the chief lawyers who oversaw the obscenity case gives us access into the banality of the whole she-bang, in total and gorgeous opposition to the mean-spirited letters and petitions and standoffs and other chuffa involved in it all. Sirkin stands beside and above banker’s boxes of paperwork, like a half-asleep hunter with his prey. And Berlier’s portrait of exploding watermelons mimics Mapplethorpe’s need to eroticize what’s not normally taken in as erotic with an energy and precision that eradicates the mimicry.
Maybe if only one guest curator did the gig, with a select group of some of the same artists featured, or if the show itself rotated works, lessening the amount of info and imagery week to week or month to month, “After the Moment” might have been a more intimate and incisive enterprise. After all Mapplethorpe’s quest at the end of the day was for “perfection,” a kind of imaginative flawlessness and formalism that sweeps away intentions and nostalgia and regular old forms of meaning in order to see something that has always been there but never pointed out before. There’s just too much stuff that’s already been pointed out being pointed out in “After the Moment,” and that redundancy gets in the way of actually seeing what truly matters, what made Mapplethorpe’s major moments, in Cincinnati and beyond, perfect.