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The “Society Photographer” of NYC’s Downtown Underground

As I was walking through Jimmy DeSana: Submission at the Brooklyn Museum, a woman was hastily making her way to the exit. “Crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy,” she kept saying aloud — seemingly to herself and the room at large — shaking her head as if in disbelief at the works on the gallery wall. Perhaps she had missed the “explicit content” warning on the exhibition door; perhaps the family-friendly pop art of the main lobby’s giant Kaws sculpture, just steps away, primes the viewer for a very different kind of museum experience, one that mimes subversion while keeping it commercial.

Submission is not that kind of show. Curated by Drew Sawyer, it is the first museum retrospective of Jimmy DeSana, a hitherto obscure yet influential photographer who thrived in New York City’s 1970s and ’80s downtown arts scene. The exhibition showcases the artist’s extraordinary trajectory, from his engagement with queer mail art networks to his documentation of NYC counterculture to his move toward photographic abstraction not long before his premature death from AIDS-related illness in 1990. DeSana appropriated the tropes of commercial imagery, with its bright colors and objectifying gaze, but brought them to the worlds of S&M and queer counterculture. If you haven’t seen his work in the flesh, you’ve likely seen its echoes in No Wave and punk-influenced photography — he was something of a “society photographer” for the downtown underground. (When I first saw DeSana’s work as an art student in New York City, it immediately clicked: this was the person who all these photo students were trying to be, without even knowing who he was.) The work is transgressive, even by today’s standards.

It’s not easy to show mail art — a profoundly anti-institutional, anti-commodity movement pioneered by Ray Johnson in the 1940s and ’50s — in a museum space. The medium’s anyone-can-participate premise of free exchange has always been at odds with the art market. DeSana also disseminated his work in magazines, and even shot some album covers: the pink-hued portrait of William S. Burroughs he took for a Giorno Poetry Systems LP featuring Laurie Anderson is one of the show’s highlights. Submission’s exhibition design does a remarkable job of bringing these disparate elements together while experimenting with newer modes of presentation. (The reading room, where visitors can sift through some of the show’s research materials, is a particularly nice touch.) One room containing black and white photographs of S&M imagery is lit in such an intense red that, upon emerging from it, your eyes burn and the white walls seem to glow green — an experiential intensity that mirrors the subject of the work itself.

DeSana’s work goes far beyond its transgressive, anti-institutional subject matter; the artist had a gift for defamiliarizing the body without dehumanizing it. In his early series, 101 Nudes, he illuminates his subjects with a harsh flash, showing their bright white bodies from unfamiliar yet intimate angles. Their fluidity stands out, at odds with the bland suburban backdrop, but the models’ comfort with the camera can make viewers feel like co-conspirators in the act, as if we are complicit in their rebellion. In two different images titled “Coat Hanger” (1979 and 1980), two models hold the opposite ends of a shared coat hanger between their buttocks. There is an obvious provocation to the gesture, as the coat hanger symbolizes the dark undertones of domesticity and sexual oppression, but at the same time there is remarkable tenderness in the way that their bodies are lit and turned in contrapposto to create a protective shield of anonymity. As DeSana’s health declined and he leaned into abstraction, this power of unknowability became increasingly central to his work. The body blurs and transfigures itself in these later images, melding with fields of color, becoming flowers and rings, or a monumental abstraction of a broken oval — a gut-wrenching testament to his artistic perseverance, the beauty he saw in humanity’s ambiguity while experiencing its transience.

Jimmy DeSana: Submission continues at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn) through April 16. The exhibition was curated by Drew Sawyer, Phillip and Edith Leonian Curator of Photography, Brooklyn Museum.