Jimmy DeSana was, for over thirty years, at the cutting edge of photography. When many photographers were still comfortably in the black-and-white world, DeSana was light-years away in the electric hues of this exhibition. The twelve photographs in Document’s show, which was created in collaboration with P.P.O.W Gallery in New York, span from 1979 to 1985.
The color is powerful, almost garish, giving the work a nightclub feel. Vibrant pinks, greens and mauves compete for attention—there is something just a bit off in each of them. As in his earlier black-and-white “Submission” series, DeSana uses bodies in this series titled “Suburban.” And as in that work, he twists the bodies, manipulating their androgynous forms into sculptural creations that challenge the viewer to find meaning. For example, in “Soap Suds” and “Sink,” respectively, DeSana’s models kneel in front of a toilet and stand in front of a kitchen sink, both overflowing with bubbles, their heads submerged in the foam. In “Extension Cord,” a nude figure stands on a cord in stiletto heels, the cord pulled tightly from a plug to beneath her/his/their shoe and extending out of the frame on the left. The model also balances a chair whose legs press against the ceiling. There is an intense sense of tension in the photograph, enhanced by a blast of fuchsia light that washes the right side of the figure and creates a monstrous shadow on the wall. DeSana used tungsten lights to create his domestic scenes, imbuing them with unnatural pigments. He sought to represent the daily strangeness of lives lived to own homes in the suburbs and consume, consume, consume.
In “Four Legs with Shoes,” four feet in oxfords wave in the air above a cardboard shell, like a tortoise struggling on its back. In “Cardboard,” a nude figure stands amongst several sheets of corrugated cardboard that has cutouts to contain the body. “Shoes” presents a set of French chairs on which someone, legs spread wide, extends one foot in a high heel and one foot in a brogue—only the penis beneath the table gives away his gender. “Seashells and Eggshells” is a surreal composition of dozens of shells laid around a woman’s face covered with broken eggshells, her lipstick glowing red in a wash of pink light.
A habitué of the downtown New York art scene of the seventies, DeSana was friends with Andy Warhol, Debbie Harry and many others with whom he appeared in publications of the era. His career extended over three decades and toward the end of his too-short life. He became very involved in queer and gender issues as well as AIDS, to which he succumbed in 1990 at the age of forty-one.
Whether the work is comprehensible or not, there is no question that it is breathtakingly beautiful—scenes from dreams or nightmares that stay in your mind long after you leave the gallery. Clearly, DeSana was a master. Sadly, he left the party too soon.
“Suburban: Jimmy DeSana” at Document, 1709 West Chicago, is on view through October 28.