London

Jimmy De Sana

Wilkinson Gallery

Taken when the American photographer Jimmy De Sana (1950–1990) was between the ages of just twenty and twenty-two, the small, black-and-white images in 101 Nudes, 1972, seem to document simultaneously this talented artist’s fumbling discoveries in both sex and photography. The subjects’ often embarrassing suburban posturing—a fleshy young woman walking gracelessly in the backyard; a skinny boy posing stupidly on a dining-room table, performing some sort of arabesque—captures the awkward, mischievous curiosity of early encounters with sex or art, the moments when our parents mercifully left us alone to discover what we really liked. Punctuating the many borderline grotesqueries among these portraits are sudden appearances of genuinely erotic nudes: a beautifully lit, sprawling male figure with magnificent legs, hiding his face in a couch; a confident, naked nymph sitting outside in the dark, caught by De Sana’s flash and half-hidden behind oversize, overexposed garden foliage like Eve in the Garden of Eden. These stand out like those startling moments in youth when one’s relentless intellectual, artistic, or sexual inexperience momentarily turns exciting and full of possibility.

The photographs in 101 Nudes were taken between 1970 and 1972 and originally published as a portfolio that De Sana had printed himself on a cheap printing press (given their subject matter, they couldn’t be sent to the local drugstore for commercial printing). The photos are tantalizingly set in plain American middle-class homes, with overstuffed sofas and scalloped lamp shades, bulky twist-cord telephones and faux-antique furnishings. De Sana usually places his subjects right in the middle of the shot, and they stare uncomfortably back at the camera, straining to be seductive. Bodies tend to be overexposed, almost shapeless masses, merging into the upholstery behind them or with the poodle in their arms, with most detail reserved for the background décor of suburban ennui, like the commemorative ceramic plates on a wall above someone’s luscious bare ass. De Sana, in complicitous Warholian spirit, encourages his subjects to experiment, to lapse into the ridiculous, to let it all go for the camera. But we are far from the Factory couch; the couch here is the one in your parents’ matching three-piece living-room suite. These are domestic settings furnished with care—but not for sex, an unwanted intruder making a mockery of the wicker-back chairs, the colonial-style paneling. With their amateurish, wooden poses, De Sana’s subjects become just more oversize knickknacks, their Bowiesque or bouffant hairstyles offering more out-of-fashion details in the rooms’ dated-looking interiors.

De Sana’s models possess spectacularly ordinary bodies—the kind that people were still willing to reveal in photographs before everybody started going to the gym, before Botox, before Photoshop. We are still a long way even from Francesca Woodman’s stylized teen angel or Robert Mapplethorpe’s sculptural, silver-gelatin Adonises. These grainy prints turn flesh into gritty newsprint: sooty, flat, and gray. Their skin has the imperfect, dry quality of that of your first boyfriend, of the first older woman you slept with; the works are, in sum, filled with nostalgia. They take you right back, to the moment art or sex suddenly made sense, when you finally said, “So this is what all the fuss is about!” It is that raw surprise and pleasure that De Sana’s early nudes miraculously preserve.

Gilda Williams