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Jimmy DeSana’s dark and uncanny transformations of the naked body

While you’re likely to have encountered the enduring images created by seminal New York photographers Robert Mapplethorpe and Peter Hujar during the 1970s and 1980s, you may be less familiar with the work of their contemporary Jimmy DeSana. Disquieting, transgressive and often darkly comic, DeSana’s idiosyncratic photographs unite a constellation of avant-garde elements from punk and sadomasochism to camp, club culture, and performance art.

In many of his most arresting images, the human body is abstracted and objectified, stripped not only of clothes but of subjectivity. We’re invited to examine the naked form in a new light. His 1982 photograph “Marker Cones”, for example, depicts an anonymous figure crouched crab-like with traffic cones on their hands and feet in a pose that’s balletic and beautiful, yet strangely grotesque. The lurid-coloured gel lighting only adds to the otherworldly quality that characterises many of his most striking compositions. Other key works, such as “Sofa”, “Refrigerator” and “Enema” (all made between 1977 and 1978) conflate unlikely themes of desire and fetishism with domesticity in an uncanny and startling reimagining of the idealised mid-century American interior.

Submission, a retrospective of DeSana’s work which has recently opened at the Brooklyn Museum, brings together more than 200 works by this often overlooked artist, from his early incursions into photography in the late 1960s right until his death from AIDs in 1990. The show’s curator Drew Sawyer reflects on DeSana’s unique visual language and style, teling Dazed: “Mapplethorpe and Hujar practiced in a very traditionally beautiful pictorial photographic mode – turning black and white classic photography towards queer subjects. I think DeSana was just working in a very different way. He was drawing on surrealism, performance, and darkroom experimentation.” Sawyer continues, “Maybe he was less interested in beauty [than his peers], although I find his photographs beautiful. I think he was pushing against the sort of classicism that was much more dominant. And I think, in part, that's why it's taken so long for his work to be integrated within museums and even galleries.”

Having moved from Atlanta, Georgia to New York in 1972, DeSana became immersed in the febrile East Village punk art and new wave scene, moving in these illustrious, riotous creative circles, taking pictures of his friends including Kathy Acker, Brian Eno, Richard Hell, Kenneth Anger, Debbie Harry among many others, yet never cashing in on the cache of celebrity. “Yes, he did album covers and press shots for Blondie and Talking Heads, but the work he made as part of his artistic output are almost all anonymous figures – the faces are turned away from the camera, they’re dunked in sinks, they’re hidden behind leather masks,” Sawyer says, in a conversation over Zoom. “Whereas I think part of the pleasure of Peter Hujar’s work – at least the portraits – is seeing Susan Sontag and these figures we can recognise from our knowledge of literature, or art, or music; these people that Hujar was circulating with around in Downtown in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.” The curator emphasises: “DeSana’s work resists that. You can’t really look at it and feel nostalgic for the specific people that are in them. His work also kind of resists that sort of idea of subjectivity and identity, which I think also perhaps makes his work a little bit more difficult.”

Another element that distinguishes DeSana’s work is its macabre humour. “It doesn't take itself so seriously, there are a lot of visual puns,” Sawyer tells us. After researching DeSana and talking with those who knew him, his sense of humour is something that many remember about the artist. “The one thing everyone mentioned was his humor – very dry and also a little bit dark, which makes sense when you look at his work.”

His sense of humour endured even after being diagnosed with HIV. However, from there, the tenor of DeSana’s work changed, becoming more abstract and spiritual. Other themes that recur throughout his work include the human figure. “I think so much of his work is the body’s relationship to its environment and objects. And this sort of slippage between subject and object, I think is really important. He really played with identity in a way that feels through line, so which maybe is why also at a contemporary moment, we can really identify with his work a little bit more.”

Despite being less well-known than many of his contemporaries, DeSana’s influence is ubiquitous. “I see it everywhere,” says Sawyer, tracing the lineage from DeSana to artists such as Wolfgang Tillmans and Catherine Opie. “Then there are also so many artists making performative photography involving objects and I have no idea whether they’re aware of DeSana’s work or not because there hadn't been a survey show and a lot of people haven’t seen his work in a really long time. But now, there is a book [accompanying the exhibition] and hopefully, you know, more and more people will be able to see the work.”

For a closer look at work on display in Submission take a look at the gallery above. 

Submission is running at the Brooklyn Museum until April 16, 2023.