Polixeni Papapetrou

Polixeni Papapetrou photographs bodybuilders and cross-dressers. Her ambitious exhibition “Curated Bodies” contained seven pieces made up of several smaller images, each of considerable internal complexity. These polyptychs are framed in different types of gilt or decorative molding; in one work, a detail from an elaborate Mannerist painting counterbalances the artifice of the whole installation. The seven works are portraits of people belonging to two subcultures, with the exception of Do you take this man?, 1996, in which a too-young, just-married, heterosexual couple contrasted with a relaxed and proud same-sex “husband and wife” team.

Papapetrou does more, however, than present a photojournalistic essay: she juxtaposes her subjects (in small panels, their feet, hands or pelvises), mapping the morphological affinities that link both groups. She presents manipulated, stretched, worked-out, worked-on, madeup body parts as signs, correctly observing that these signs circulate within social systems as complex, convergent statements, for both are focused on one central trope—the erect, madeover body/phallus. Papapetrou’s approach—which is classificatory but sympathetic, as if she were a social-realist John Baldessari—distances her work from appropriation art. Her unsentimental but respectful works take their place within a tradition of photographic essays on mimes, freaks, and the dispossessed that stretches from Nadar to Diane Arbus. “Curated Bodies” is an anthropology of queer families by a complicit nonparticipant, but the possible charge of cultural tourism seems to lack force: representations like hers are interesting precisely because they embody a double-bind—here, the “fact” of gender collides with and complicates the “fact” of sex.

As a whole the exhibition was consistently indifferent to the fetish of finish, but Papapetrou’s insistent gilt frames are neither grand nor grungy enough for the historicist points she thinks she makes: if frames could sit on fences, these would—neither glamorous nor historically deviant, they are an overliteral adaptation of an altarpiece format. In the diptych Mirror Marilyn: Original and Copy, 1996, Papapetrou deconstructs rather than ornaments, using two small simulacra of a larger portrait of a Marilyn look-alike. The exhibition’s strongest work, Subject Changes, 1996, is a monumental triple portrait of three (originally male) subjects. To the left and right of a male bodybuilder, two transsexuals lean toward an arrangement of white flowers. In this Whistleresque composition creamy gray-whites are disrupted by explosions of blue: the woman on the right wears a kitschy blue frock; the woman on the left radiates sex; the shaved, bronzed, muscled man in the middle sports an alarmingly magnetic blue thong. Papapetrou underplays her ability to arrange brightly colored forms within monochrome compositions, but her sensuous figure-ground relationships offset her collection of cheery doppelgängers to perfection. In Subject Changes, framing conceits are reined in and the visual sensitivity is close to miraculous. The subjects look and feel good: the image has pathos precisely because the artist has been attentive to something beyond the economy of gender—the mise-en-scène of cloth, masonry, and flowers.

There is a contradiction in most of these works between a community-oriented journalism and a more sensational avant-gardism, but “Subject Changes” moves beyond historicism in effortlessly appropriating Pontormo’s monumental, serpentine Mannerism. Papapetrou’s future with bodybuilding lies on that side of the fence.

Charles Green