New York

Jimmy De Sana

Pat Hearn Gallery

Jimmy De Sana delineated his love of objects and the exemplary lie of photography in an interview with Diego Cortez in 1986: “A photograph is how much you want to lie, how far you want to stretch the truth about the object. And, as photography is always based on real objects, it lends itself, by means of technique or manipulation, to explorations of what may appear to be an absence of reality, balancing on an ambiguous line between concrete and abstract space, between reality and illusion, in a way that no other medium is able to do.” De Sana’s career began as it ended—in the exploration of those various balanced betweens. His catalogue raisonné could be called “Juxtaposition, or The Erotic Life of Next to.”

Some of his most inventive, resonant work appeared in book form. Following and celebrating the release of Disney’s 101 Dalmatians, his first book, 101 Nudes, 1972/91, peered into the forlorn, next-door, often hilarious randiness of suburbia: plump woman nude on porch steps, plump woman nude next to potted plants, nude in bushes, or nude fondling the family pet; skinny boy nude and posed on top of the dining-room table, like a fountain cherub run amok, skinny boy again nude balanced on the sofa’s arm, dolled up in drag across the love seat, cigarette in hand playing the piano nude, or caressing in the buff a mural of Jesus. It is hard to imagine how dazzling such work must have been then since it can still move you to tearseither from laughing or crying. Not quite a decade later, Submission, ca. 1979, continued what 101 Nudes had begun but took a colder, fanged approach to the objectlike qualities of the body (as coffee table, toilet stopper, shoe tree, hole). Geared-up for homemade S/M play (the sequence was prompted by De Sana’s receipt of a black leather head sheath), Submission combined a disturbing intimacy with the askew vision of Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp. Along with John Waters’ movies and Larry Clark’s Tulsa, 1972, and Teenage Lust, 1983, it provided wild, shaggy antiphony to the ’70s. Perverse, surreal, tender, even funny, the same qualities that allowed De Sana to catch the babyness of stars (to be)—Brian Eno, Talking Heads, Debbie Harry, whom he photographed at the start of “new wave” for the New York Rocker, File, and other magazines—Submission makes most of Robert Mapplethorpe seem stiff, finicky, and hygienic.

De Sana was already working in color before the publication of Submission. Studying Man Ray’s various light experiments and darkroom manipulations led De Sana to spike his palette, adding tints to color photography as intense and luxurious as the names for them: dun, cerise, ashes of roses, iodine, bile. Recalling the waterfall in Duchamp’s Étant Donnés: 1° la chute d’eau, 2° le gaz d’éclairage, 1946–66, and the altered Mona Lisa of L.H.O.O.Q., 1919, Cellophane Tape (self-portrait), 1985, captures De Sana as a blue Mona pulling a stream of tape from his mouth. For a “crazy statement” on America’s “obsession with food and dieting,” De Sana had a “fat suit” made. Vaseline (self-portrait), 1986, and the wacky Bubblegum (self-portrait), 1985, achieve their fatty theory and commentary by recognizing the obscurity, artifice, and thingyness of flesh—when it is seen. De Sana knew that the body photographed was between and next to reality and fantasy; yet noticing the body’s (Hans Bellmer–like) doll parts—legs, arms, torso, head—and combining them with things led him not toward objectification, which would have been redundant anyway, but toward mystery.

When in his last years he focused, in ghostly, glowing colors, on the obtuseness of things—their psychic life the projection of our own (Gooseberries, 1987; his stunning series “String,” 1987)—and the body as an obscure object of desire (Kneeling Magica/Figure, 1990; Parka, 1986), he was criticized for “his new circumspect decorum” or for being “maddeningly enigmatic” rather than recognized for what his work had always been doing, humorously profoundly. De Sana showed something so simple that its radicality is evasive: what you are seeing is the photograph, not a clue to its inception, and by implication what is not available to sight anywhere else any longer—these bodies, these interiorities, this stuff of loss.

Bruce Hainley