Jimmy DeSana diligently stayed away from the photography studio. The restraints of staged corners and sterile lighting conflicted the American artist’s idea of capturing a moment, perhaps too complicit with the numbing humdrum of domesticity that he ferociously sought to dismantle in his enduring oeuvre. 32 years after his Aids-related passing, DeSana has been commemorated with the first museum exhibition of his short-lived but dense career – fittingly in New York, where he produced a vast body of lens-based work after moving to the city at age 23 from Georgia in 1972.
Submission at the Brooklyn Museum includes over 200 works, mainly in photography as well as ephemera such as punk-inspired zines, editorials and No Wave album covers, radiating a brutal commitment – beyond purely creating images – to carve slices of a bizarre anarchy through the familiarity of objects and bodies.
A prosaic fridge stores a woman in lingerie; tiles of a kitchen floor are stained with urine released from a penis and missed by a leather-masked slave’s mouth. Plastic bags tie together nude bodies in a backyard, and so do stacks of cardboard in a room. The impact of DeSana’s images arises through a peculiar warmth they emanate, not only through his utilisation of gel-lighting in balmy hues of red, but also with the Atlanta-raised artist’s assumption of homey interiors as backdrops for bodily contortions and corporal postures.
The show’s curator Drew Sawyer says the show’s prevalent traits are those of “identity and subjectivity”. “There is a parallel between the way the body conforms to society’s structures and is disciplined in S&M,” he added. In the artist’s juxtapositions, these two modes of submission – supposed polars with surprising kinships – amalgamate, leaking into each others’ physical territories through their intertwined rituals. Two sides of a coat hanger poke two buttocks; a vagina rubs over an ornate sofa; or an egg protrudes from an anus. The bodies contort to seemingly unconformable positions to accommodate objects of comfort – sofas, bathtubs, TVs, and kitchen sinks. The home’s warrant of recluse moonlights as the carnal promise in a sex dungeon where sudden discomfort is synonymous with pleasure.
While his contemporaries Peter Hujar and Robert Mapplethorpe championed the static placidness of studio photography, DeSana favoured the interiors’ kinetic candidness, which he activated through a daring use of light, unconventional angles, and vague narratives. Besides a few portraits of his friends like Debbie Harry, John Giorno, David Byrne and William S Burroughs, he kept the identity of his subjects, including his own, ambiguous. “This was an effort to protect the identity of the nude models who were mostly his friends,” Sawyer says. The unfamiliarity of the subjects, he thinks, is a reason why DeSana’s work has taken a while to find institutional attention. As opposed to his contemporaries’ interest in photographing familiar downtown figures, this mystery in subject matter has impacted DeSana’s recognition among curators and collectors.
Except for 1969’s two black-and-white nudes shot out in the Atlanta wilderness, the show spans the entirety of 1970s and the 1980s when DeSana ambitiously photographed his own version of Americana, one that he meticulously constructed to deconstruct it from within. The ferocity in his pictures of domestic deviation changes skin to shots of singular objects towards the end of his career, following his HIV diagnosis. Bodies absent, candlesticks, socks, chairs, or eyelashes stand erected to fill in for missing flesh, tormented by illness and stigmatisation.
“So much of Jimmy’s work, as well as his peers in the Pictures Generations movement, was about playing with the idea of truth in representation, and by staging things, he confronted the aspect of photography somehow being rooted in reality,” Sawyer says. “His turn to dark room presentation upon his diagnosis is a refusal of representation of the body at a time of public debate.”
Artist Laurie Simmons remembers his best friend as “a Scorpio with an intense stare.” Three years before his demise, DeSana posed for Simmons in Walking Camera I (Jimmy the Camera) (1987), embodying his photographic eye by becoming a giant camera with legs. “He loved the way his legs looked in that picture and the way he became a camera really touched him,” she adds.
Roommates, confidants, and each others’ models, the pair survived as emerging artists in the heyday of downtown New York with a mutual desire to flip the camera’s conformist lens – and while this was, for Simmons, a way to shatter the gaze towards the female body, DeSana was invested in shaking the performance of gender within the confines of heteronormativity. “Modelling for Jimmy was an organic outcome of being with him every time he took photos, but also because I happened to lean towards having a gender-neutral body type,” Simmons remembers. “He was very drawn to the mysteries around gender, as I was.”
Marker Cones (1982) is arguably DeSana’s most well-known photograph, showing a nude male body striving to stand on all-fours with marker cones in lieu of his hands and feet. The narrow points of the plastic pyramids yield a precarious positioning; the body expands in search of balance under a moody red light. His head invisible, the figure seems even less humanoid, somewhere between a piece of furniture upholstered with flesh or an insect flexing its massive claws. Bodily discomfort and object pleasure coalesce, refusing to settle for the promise of either.
Jimmy DeSana: Submission is on show at the Brooklyn Museum in New York until April 16, 2023.