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The Prurient Punk Surrealism of Photographer Jimmy Desana

Written by Jessica Robinson

In 1973, artist, photographer and filmmaker Laurie Simmons was on the A train headed to Rockaway Beach with a group of friends when she first laid eyes on Jimmy DeSana, a small, handsome Southern gentleman, utterly self- conscious yet completely natural.

“Jimmy was all dressed in white. A white Panama hat, white clothes and a Yashica GT35 camera — which he’d spray-painted white — around his neck. Even though he was a kinda manly man he wore a very thin rhinestone necklace around his neck,” Simmons remembers.

“We held onto the same subway pole and agreed at that very moment to rent a living-workspace together. That’s how things worked then: one meeting and the deal was sealed.”

In an instant they recognized their shared interest in photography and within days they became roommates. In less than two decades, DeSana would be dead, leaving behind a trailblazing body of work that could only have been created in the New York of the 1970s and ’80s. And, chances are, you may have never heard of him.

Jimmy DeSana was a gay man, a photographer in the earliest days of the AIDS era who became a pioneering contributor to the vibrant East Village arts scene. Though his career spanned only a handful of years (he died of AIDS-related causes in 1990 at just 40), his work bridged myriad genres, from No Wave counterculture and BDSM subculture, to the image play of the “Pictures Generation,” as well as commercial projects and rock album covers.

“He straddled commercial, artistic, social and personal worlds with startling fluidity while maintaining a commitment to a new way of thinking about photography,” says art historian William J. Simmons.

This new way of thinking included an unconventional use of such photographic techniques as collages, double exposures and vivid, cinematic colored lighting. In the 1982 photo “Marker Cones,” DeSana crouches naked and twists away from the camera on all fours with his hands and feet enclosed in orange cones, as if in a demented game of Twister. Dramatic lighting casts his skin in a feverish and sexy glow.

Often managing to glamorize and offend at the same time, his revolutionary use and abuse of the body was as similarly sensationalistic, and taboo, as Robert Mapplethorpe’s. “I was trying to push sexuality to the limit,” he once said. Yet he never enjoyed Mapplethorpe’s notoriety.

“How inexplicable that he has flown under the radar for such a long time,” says photographer Marcia Resnick.

In spite of having had over 50 exhibitions during his lifetime — including at Wilkinson Gallery, London; Pat Hearn Gallery, New York; Galerie Jacques de Windt, Brussels; Museum of the Twentieth Century, Vienna; and the seminal 1981 P.S.1 exhibition “New York/New Wave,” where he showed alongside such artists as Basquiat, David Armstrong, Kenny Scharf and Keith Haring — DeSana never won the reputation his work deserved.

Brooklyn Museum is changing that with its current retrospective, “Submission,” the first full-blown survey of his work.

Superbly organized by curator Drew Sawyer, on display are over 200 works — some newly printed for the show — ranging from erotic photographs of nudes in precarious, hyper-saturated color, to campy portraits of downtown luminaries such as William S. Burroughs, Kenneth Anger, Yoko Ono and Debbie Harry. There are album covers for the Talking Heads and John Giorno’s LP, “You’re the Guy I Want To Share My Money With,” mail-art zines, portraits for the Soho Weekly News and the East Village Eye, and much, much more.

‘His obscenity is never obscene’
Born in Detroit on November 12, 1949, DeSana was raised in an aggressively typical post-War, American family: suburban home, two children, a dog.

In 1955 the family moved to Atlanta, where DeSana spent the remainder of his childhood. In 1968, America’s annus horribilis – encompassing the Vietnam War and the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King — DeSana entered Georgia State University.

One year later, on June 28, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn, the gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village, sparking an uprising that would launch the modern gay liberation movement. This spark of rebellion and hope made its way to Atlanta’s Ansley Mall Mini Cinema, where Andy Warhol’s homoerotic underground film, “Lonesome Cowboys,” was showing. Fifteen minutes into the film’s only screening, police officers raided the cinema and confiscated the reels. Many of the audience members were harassed, photographed and arrested.

DeSana may or may not have been in the audience that night, but he was certainly aware that his classmates and professors experienced censorship from school officials and the city. In the catalog accompanying the Brooklyn exhibition, curator Sawyer writes that in 1972, DeSana’s teacher, photographer John McWilliams, organized Atlanta’s annual arts festival where he displayed nudes made by his students and invited the highly regarded photographer Frederick Sommer to judge the exhibition.

“Sommer awarded prizes to several of the students, but within days there were letters and reviews in Atlanta’s daily papers complaining of the exhibition’s pornography,” writes Sawyer.

Against this backdrop of censorship and taboos, DeSana turned his perceptions of suburbia into his final thesis project, “101 Nudes,” spoofing the title of Walt Disney’s “101 Dalmations.”

The 56 humorous black-and-white images in “101 Nudes” are all fairly innocent scenes carefully posed in middle-class American homes. It’s kink for beginners: a nude perches on the edge of an overstuffed sofa; another plunges face-first into cushions; a goofy-looking naked boy stands on one leg on a dining room table. There are even close-up shots of buttocks, breasts and genitals, yet, as DeSana himself noted, they are “without eroticism,” adding, “that is the way the suburbs are, in a sense.”

As Jean Cocteau said of a Jean Genet poem, “His obscenity is never obscene.”

‘Christian and medievaland gloomy’
After graduating college in 1972, DeSana moved to New York and entered a city pulsing with creative energy. The gay sexual revolution was in full swing, as was the radical punk art scene. On the Lower East Side a loosely knit community of artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers and poets was remaking the downtown art world, exhibiting their work and creating performances in one another’s lofts. Even clubs like the MUDD Club and CBGB, the birthplace of punk, were being repurposed as artists’ spaces.
DeSana quickly became a fixture in this avant-garde scene, alongside such artists as Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger and Laurie Simmons.

Freed from the constraints of his conservative upbringing, DeSana began experimenting in S&M, a point he made clear with his transgressive 1974 self-portrait as a naked, hanged man with an erection. “He explored the nude figure and sadomasochism with hyperbole and wit, driven by his own erotic desire and rendered in a kind of punk surrealism,” says photography historian Philip Gefter.

Around 1978, he began work on his BDSM-themed staged photographs, hoping to publish them as a book titled, like the Brooklyn Museum retrospective, “Submission.” The forward was written by his friend, counter-culture hero and Beat junkie William S. Burroughs.

“It’s all so Christian and medieval and gloomy. Precisely. Jimmy DeSana, your intrepid photographer, has witnessed and preserved for posterity the unspeakable rites of these benighted natives,” Burroughs writes.

Still, in spite of an introduction by a famous writer, DeSana had trouble finding a publisher. He would ultimately self-publish the book in 1980.

While always witty, the black-and-white pictures in “Submission” are rarely funny. Terence Sellers, a dominatrix DeSana had once collaborated with, went so far as to call the images “absurd”: a man in a leather mask squats on a toilet; a hog-tied woman in black lingerie and high heels is crouched in a refrigerator, empty except for a dozen eggs; a man jerks off by a dog baring its teeth; a high-heeled shoe is stuffed inside a pantyhose.

Building on his “101 Nudes,” before he published “Submission,” DeSana began his first foray into color with a series called “Suburban” (copublished by Aperture and Salon 94 in 2015).

In the late 1970s, the use of color film was still relatively rare in fine art photography. Not only was the film far more expensive than black-and-white, but critics, museums and uptown galleries did not take it seriously. They considered it too crass because of its association with advertising and commercial photography. Plus, it was not user-friendly. When Kodachrome (the first successful color material used for both movies and still photography) was introduced, it was so complicated to process and print that even Ansel Adams, a darkroom wizard, had to rely on labs to develop it.

According to Sawyer, DeSana wanted to make a picture “look different from anything that I had seen.”

Luridly lit with tungsten lights and hyper-saturated with candy- colored pink, green and red gels, the nude subjects in “Suburban” — male and female — are comically sprawled out on couches
and carpets, slathered with dish soap or balanced precariously on all fours with cones for hands and feet. In the photograph “Soap Suds,” a naked man is strung up by his feet with his head in a sudsy toilet bowl; in “Leaves,” a naked woman in spiked heels, covered in green leaves, hangs from a shower rod; in “Condom,” a man sits on a tape recorder and has a light bulb for a penis.

Vague and ambiguous
Testing positive for HIV would trigger a shift in the emotional gears of his work. DeSana made a photograph of himself in 1985 titled “Stitches.” Bathed in red light, naked save for a pair of red Calvin Klein briefs, one arm is folded above his head, while on his torso a long scar with thick stitches travels from the top of his abdomen, curves around his belly button, and ends at his waist. Already ravaged by the virus, his spleen had been removed.

“If I could do a show that confused people so much, that was so ambiguous that they didn’t know what to think, but they felt sort of sickened by it and also entertained, then for me that would be the moment that we’re going through right now,” wrote DeSana of his creative response to the AIDS pandemic and his own diagnosis.

“From the fall of 1985 until his death five years later,” says Laurie Simmons, “Jimmy worked in a frenzy trying to create as much as he possibly could.”

Unlike the previous, playful works, these later creations are filled with the grotesque, possibly conveying the bewildering outbreaks of the pandemic as he was experiencing it.

Take “Bubblegum,” a self-portrait. Saturated in garish green light, the artist stands with bloated cheeks and oversized shirt and pants. He has puffed up his body with padding and arched his back so that his stomach protrudes, making himself look distorted and distended, while at the same time blowing a bubble. With the sexual liberty DeSana had embraced as life- affirming now marking him for a horrible death, what else could he do but joke about it?

Toward the end, DeSana’s work became more symbolic in a variety of ways, from spiritual to satirical to enigmatic. DeSana himself referred to them as “vague and ambiguous.” A portrait of himself as a woman with his hands folded in his lap and a waterfall in the background is a clear nod to Leonardo DaVinci’s “Mona Lisa,” only a ribbon of cellophane tape tumbles out of his mouth.

Even more enigmatic is the triptych of flowers: a carnation, an amaryllis and a rose. Pairs of men’s legs are splayed out like a pinwheel, almost like a Busby Berkeley overhead shot, with a perfect flower in full bloom placed in the center as if it were the pin holding them together.

“It is not surprising,” says Sawyer, “that DeSana locates the idea of salvation not in God, but in the earthly pleasures of the nude male body and flowers.”

For all of that, the Brooklyn Museum’s retrospective finally makes a compelling argument for DeSana’s place in the history of photography.

“There is universality in DeSana’s work,” says William J. Simmons, the art historian, “in his constant reminder of the interconnectedness of art and life.”

And, certainly, death too. For DeSana, everything was a photo, and he wanted his end to be that way too.

“He had it all planned. He had the gun and the camera. The two would be connected and go off at the same time,” says Robert Stephanotti, DeSana’s gallerist and close friend. “I said no.”

Eventually he died in probably the best way he could have, says Stephanotti, “peacefully, with his mother at his side.”

“Jimmy DeSana: Submission” will be on display at the Brooklyn Museum until April 16, 2023 in the Robert E. Blum Gallery