Upon entering the exhibition "Jimmy DeSana: Submission", the thorough and impressive first-ever museum retrospective of the late queer photographer, two of the first images to greet viewers are a nude self-portrait of a college-age DeSana and a portrait of his mother. There is an obvious, striking juxtaposition between the two images: the young artist, unclothed and free; and down the wall, past matter-of-fact pictures of American homes, his conservatively dressed mom. With these portraits, Submission introduces a central dichotomy pictured in DeSana’s work: the wild, darkly playful queer world found and forged on the outskirts of the straight world.
Despite the confrontational nature of his artwork, DeSana was not so much a separatist. Yes, he was drawn to the outside, but he was particularly interested in what outsiders looked like when enmeshed against the backdrop of everyday society in a way that envisions an alternative where artists and the like could be embraced and celebrated without assimilation. His series Suburban (circa late 1970s to mid-1980s) highlights this most pointedly, with its nude subjects adorned and contorted in plain, domestic venues. Consider also his occasional collaborators, the band Talking Heads. DeSana designed the artwork for their album More Songs About Buildings and Food. The title is a cheeky nod to the domestic boringness of the kinds of things the band was making music about. Talking Heads, like DeSana, injected the otherwise average with a revolutionary weirdness, providing a new perspective.
In the late 1970s, around the same time he was making portraits of downtown New York City artists like Richard Hell, Kathy Acker, Laurie Anderson, and BOMB’s own Betsy Sussler, DeSana was also producing less conventional images that were violent, deeply provocative scenes of sadomasochism: pricks pricked by razors, nipples clamped with clothespins. At the Brooklyn Museum exhibition, these photos are tucked away in their own section, bathed in bold red light. The one that struck me the hardest—thereby igniting the most perverse pleasure—was "Dog" (1978). The picture shows a snarling, fang-bearing dog sharing the frame with one of DeSana’s trademark erect cocks in the midst of being jerked. On the adjacent wall, an egg pokes out of a guy’s asshole.
Submission includes DeSana’s only known film, "Double Feature (1974)". In the first “feature,” a dog wags its tail atop a parked car. In the second, a showering man tugs at his soapy penis. Other videos fill in the context for DeSana’s artistic circle, including an interview with dominatrix Terence Sellers and performances by musicians at a fundraising concert for one of DeSana’s publications. In a room bridging two parts of the exhibition, a short film by Matt Wolf provides thoughts from Laurie Simmons, artist and executor of the DeSana Trust, and her daughter, Lena Dunham. Commissioned by the two in 2017 for amfAR Gala, the sleek talking heads in Wolf’s interview feel at odds with the Talking Heads in the room behind them.
The final section of "Submission" focuses on work made in the mid-’80s up until DeSana’s death from AIDS in 1990. Wall text indicates that DeSana’s spleen ruptured in 1984 as a result of his HIV. On the opposite wall, a self-portrait of the artist in red boxer briefs reveals a large scar winding down his torso. Apart from this self-portrait, the rest of the work feels less direct than the kind of art DeSana had previously been making. Using various gels and dyes, he imbued these photos with striking saturation. It’s as if DeSana considered color to be a new sort of abstraction at his disposal, defying the stark, documentary-like quality of his black-and-white images.
Walking from the end of the show back to the beginning, I wondered if the characteristics of DeSana’s later, colorful work would appear more familiar to a modern audience now inundated with the bright, slenderly posed editorial photography of the Instagram era, especially compared to some of the scenes in his first portfolio, "101 Nudes" (1972), such as a woman’s large breasts washed out by camera flash, a telephone cord wrapped around her finger. Or a naked man sitting at a piano, leaning back slightly to show his furry stomach. Butt cheeks, balls, thighs. All of these things feel immediately radical in their plainness. They must have back then, because they still do now. Somewhere in those rooms, between the two ends of DeSana’s artistic career, lies a queer potential to shock a new generation of viewers. You just have to submit to the art.
Jimmy DeSana: Submission is on view at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City until April 16.