Jimmy DeSana: Party Picks @Salon 94 Bowery

JTF (just the facts): A total of 22 black and white and color photographs, framed in white and matted/unmated, and hung in the main space downstairs and the smaller entry gallery upstairs. 7 of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1978 and 1983. These prints range in size from roughly 19×15 to 26×20 (or reverse). The 15 color works are all c-prints, made between 1977 and 1987. These prints range in size from roughly 23×18 to 50×34 (or reverse). No edition information was provided on the checklist. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: Salon 94 has recently taken on the estate of Jimmy DeSana, and this show provides a useful introductory sampler of his work, from color saturated portraits of artists and musicians from the 1970s/1980s downtown scene (Kenneth Anger, Laurie Anderson et al) to more conceptual concoctions of nude bodies and everyday objects. His photographs are clearly drawn from a particular time and place, where punk attitude, gay culture, and a rejection of artistic boundaries came together in a unique underground aesthetic.

While the bright, sunglassed smile of Debby Harry that opens the show is enduringly fresh and young, DeSana’s tone quickly turns quite a bit darker and more combative. Most of the photographs on view are staged nudes, where the body in question has become an object, alternately cocooned in gauze, wrapped in masking tape, and striped by lines of toothpaste. While S&M hoods, bondage ropes, and plier-pulled nipples make fleeting appearances, his best works upend our conventional notion of the nude and tilt the balance toward the puzzlingly surreal. Cocktail toothpicks with frilly tips poke out from a man’s anguished mouth, each one lodged into the gaps between his teeth, while small orange parking cones are used as unlikely shoes for another nude, the figure perilously perching on the plastic tips against a background of astroturf. Acidic color bathes most of the images, a rainbow of gel filter pinks, blues, greens, and yellows blasting down like the glow of creepy nighttime neon; it’s exactly the kind of light we wouldn’t expect, and it soaks the images in ominous mystery. Faceless bodies act out incomprehensible scenes in anonymous homes and apartments, from the balletic grace of a nude with cowboy boots on every limb, to the back and forth bathtub tussle of one sweater worn by two people (both heads obscured by motorcycle helmets); the face down nude floating in a pool decorated by hopelessly happy beach balls and the man in disturbingly misshapen and oversized pants complete the cycle of quiet transgression.

While there are obvious time period and subject matter overlaps with some of Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1970s work here, DeSana’s vision was decidedly less classical. There are loose connections in DeSana’s work to both the witty subversiveness of some of the conceptual photography of the same time (Nauman, Oppenheim, Bochner, Wegman et al), as well as to the body as a surface for art making of the Viennese Actionists who came slightly before. In nearly every case, DeSana’s objectified nudes are struggling with their associated props: pushed into awkward situations, fighting their confinement, and upending our expectations.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The black and white prints range in price from $15000 to $30000, while the color prints start at $8000 and run up to $38000. DeSana’s work has very little auction history, with only a handful of lots coming to market in the past decade or so. As such, gallery retail is likely the only option for those collectors interested in following up.

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