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Exhibition Revew: Submission

Jimmy DeSana: Submission at Brooklyn Museum celebrates an irreverent LGBTQ artist’s career. Broken down into three phases, each marked by a significant event in his personal life, including, most significantly, moving to New York City and his diagnosis with HIV/AIDS, DeSana’s career bears witness to his transformation as an artist and a gay man in America in the 90s. The exhibition takes the viewer to three different rooms, each devoted to a unique stage of DeSana's career, demonstrating his range as a photographer and his artistic progression. 

The first room spotlights DeSana’s queering of the American suburban landscape. In a black-and-white photograph, a nude body perches over a bathtub, with its four limbs propping up the flat torso, and the head concealed in the shadows. DeSana takes a familiar domestic scene – a bathtub filled with soapy water– and distorts it by taking the body out of the water to face the viewer. DeSana tests gravity, or seeks to defy it, by having his subject do a reverse plank over the bathtub. To make the picture look even more absurd, DeSana dangles a hose from the ceiling and feeds it to the indistinguishable head. There is something almost dehumanizing about the way the subject is treated, however, one can only marvel at the beauty of the lines: The fluidity of the water hose, the curvature of the hips hanging over the bathtub, the symmetry of the legs and arms. A splatter of sparks covers the lower half of the body, suggesting water being splashed around just before the picture was taken. The water droplets falling from the ribs, thighs and hips of the body adds to the picture’s lyricism. 

The second room reveals the transition in DeSana’s career. His focus on artists, band members and photographers in the New York downtown scene reveals his engagement with Punk. His expanding repertoire is a result of the influences of artists in his community, most notably Laurie Simmons. However, like a true renegade, he turns his gaze at fashion photography only to parody the tastelessness of a consumerist American culture, as well as to poke fun at the artificiality and frivolity of commercial photography. DeSana’s work in this period also becomes increasingly explicit as he depicts sadomasochism captured in neon, gel lights. These images explore the boundaries of bodily autonomy and the freedom one seeks in unorthodox sexual practices. DeSana’s venture into video-making and experimenting with mixed media production amplifies his resistance to the dominant American culture. He is unabashed in his denunciation of those who prioritized the value or worth of a commodity over self-expression and the authentic, lived experience. 

The third room at the back of the exhibition hall is much more solemn than the first two, marked by a dignified silence. The curators have done away with the neon light and loud music that ambushed the viewer in the second room in order to honor DeSana’s work after his HIV/AIDS diagnosis. DeSana’s confrontation with mortality, the fragility and impermanence of human life and the randomness of it all is felt viscerally. A picture of bright orange threads scribbled in the background with thicker lines dominating the center of the photograph captures the inarticulate fear and terror that haunted DeSana and his peers, abandoned by a government that refused to provide adequate care to the LGBTQ community at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The lines are intertwined and woven together, as though to assert the strong ties and bonds within the LGBTQ community, despite the US institution's inaction. The pictures in this room are decidedly more abstract than those in the first two rooms, suggesting DeSana’s attempt to make sense of it all and just how impossible such a mission is. 

This retrospective does justice to an audacious photographer whose works are defiant and mind-bending. DeSana is a true rebel, using his powers of invention to resist the wave of materialism in a capitalistic 20th-century America and make space for uncompromising self-expression.