There are many ways of reading an image and, by extension, an artist’s work. A biographical, psychoanalytic or semiotic approach are useful tools that can shed different light on different aspects of an artist’s practice, but they can also provide contradictory interpretations. Jimmy DeSana’s enigmatic photographic experiments lend themselves to such readings, and to ambiguous interpretations.
Born in 1949, Jimmy DeSana studied art at the University of Georgia. He moved to New York in 1972 and became part of the East Village art and music scene. His flamboyant aesthetic appealed to the trendsetting magazines of the time and he took some arresting pictures of Debbie Harry, Laurie Anderson, William Burroughs, Kenneth Anger and other cultural icons that became instant classics. At the same time, he exhibited his art at Steffanoti Gallery, an ardent supporter of his vision, and in the mid-80s, at the legendary Pat Hearn Gallery. He died of AIDS-related illness in 1990, so his work didn’t achieve the recognition he deserved during his lifetime.
His best friend and fellow photographer Laurie Simmons has often said that she owes Jimmy all that she knows about her art and she has honoured their friendship by making the world more aware of his visual poetry. The current exhibition at Amanda Wilkinson is an intimate and focused selection of photographs of bodies in relation to objects. Elegantly installed, it allows the viewer to discover the artist’s radiance, his unique approach to his subject matter and the photographic medium.
Some viewers may be tempted to read into some of the photographs (such as Underwear, 1979) a BDSM lifestyle and find connotations of masochism, submission and control, but these works are far too delirious and perverse to allow such a facile interpretation. The woman lying on the sofa, hands behind her back (handcuffed?) has her face covered with underwear. Upon closer inspection, we see she’s wearing athletic socks with black moccasins. This highly staged photograph makes me think that the objects here (the socks, the shoes, the underwear) as of equal importance to the body, and that’s probably why the artist decided to title the works after the objects. The human body is scrutinized and treated as object in these works. Together with the rest of the items, this “body as object” creates a surreal still-life composition. In this sense, one could view works such as Iguana, 1979 or Gauze, 1979 as still-lives.
Yet, such a reading would omit the performative element that is most prevalent in these photographs. They seem to be playing out absurd and occasionally obscure everyday scenarios that explore sexuality and desire. Extension Cord, 1979 and Cardboard, 1985, are both reminiscent of Erwin Wurm’s much later One Minute Sculptures; they blur the boundaries between performance, sculpture and photography and look “timeless” .
The experimental use of colour in DeSana’s work, referencing 70s soft pornography and 80s advertising photography, is as disruptive as it is camp. It spills on photography’s different genres and casts doubts on how lightly we tend to categorise art. These are photographs that do not conveniently fit in any genre; in fact, they contaminate all genres with questions about the nature and potential of the photographic medium. They offer a queer gaze to the the world that liberates it from imposed binaries such as commercial vs art, fact vs fiction. Think how radical the work must have been when it first came out and consider how well-framed it is in the present moment. DeSana, a genuine misfit in his time, seems to have found his place in the history of photography many years after his death and his work continues to exert fascination, radiance and awe.
Curator of Programmes
Amanda Wilkinson, 1st Floor, 18 Brewer Street (entrance on Green’s Court), London W1F 0SH. Open Tuesday-Saturday 11.00-18.00. Exhibition continues until 1 February 2020. www.amandawilkinsongallery.com