“Before Mapplethorpe”, The Oregonian

Before Mapplethorpe

Dureau prefers playing with reality to creating perfection

by Randy Gragg, The Oregonian

If you wander into the back room at Jamison/Thomas Gallery this month, you might be in for a shock. Lined up over the gallery’s storage racks are a series of boldly composed photographs of nude black men and portraits of men with congenital deformities.

The pictures by New Orleans artist George Dureau — are a radical departure from the gallery’s usual quietly sophisticated fare. At first glance, the classical poses, the writhing muscular bodies and the occasional hint of sadomasochism in several of the pictures are reminiscent of the late Robert Mapplethorpe’s controversial photographs.

That’s what gallery owner William Jamison thought, too. He even mentioned to Dureau. “It looks like you’ve been influenced by Mapplethorpe.” The 60-year-old Dureau replied, “Well, that young man came to my studio several times.”

Indeed. Mapplethorpe did visit Dureau. In the late ’70s, in fact. He bought large numbers of the older photographer’s pictures. The infinitely better-connected Mapplethorpe even arranged Dureau’s first New York show in 1980.

But Dureau’s photographs are unquestionably Dureau’s. He began making nude portraits of black men in 1971. Mapplethorpe’s earliest photographs of black men are dated 1977. Dureau claims that Mapplethorpe actually restaged every single picture he bought from him. Yet, the differences between the two artists are far more compelling than are the similarities.

Take Dureau’s portrait of Louis Goins. Arms folded, head tilted downward, he confronts those who would gaze upon him with a discomfiting stare back. Most importantly, Goins wears a distinct expression — a combination of suspicion and flirtatious haughtiness.

You’d be hard put to find a similar look — or, really, any expression at all — on the face of a Mapplethorpe nude. The black men of his photographs don’t make eye contact. Instead, they look away or downward, dreamily self-contained and unthreatening. They pose not as humans but as ideals. None would betray such an identifying detail as the tiny flower tattooed to Goin’s chest. Perfection, to Mapplethorpe, was exotic, seamless and identified with only a first name.

Dureau cares little about perfection for its own sake. He is interested in who his subjects are more than what are. Many are friends he’s photographed over the years. He likens his studio to a living room, the portraits to stories and his work to the tradition of Southern literature — rich in characterization.

But perhaps the most fascinating area in which to compare the two photographers is in their uses and violations of pictorial conventions —how they break the rules of art.

Mapplethorpe — who originally was trained as a sculptor – not only accepted but consistently nurtured classical notions of beauty in his work. His innovation and, ultimately, his failure was social.

The nude male in Western culture is not just Caucasian but white — as in marble white. His genitals are always underscaled. He embodies the Platonic ideal where sex — synonymous with procreation — is solely for the service of the state.

By presenting a classically posed male who was black, overtly virile and solely an object of pleasure, Mapplethorpe shifted the paradigm. His testing of the taboos against gay and interracial sex is laudable, but the absence of humanism in his photographs is not. The erotic seed of his work is rooted in the same fertile soil as advertising — namely fetish.

Dureau is a painter. Pictures, to him, are a sleight-of-hand. Their illusions can be played against them.

For instance, his picture of Earl Leavell causes a double-take. In the trite portrait pose, the prominence of Leavell’s head relative to his arms at first appears to be caused by foreshortening. Upon closer scrutiny, however, you realize the illusion is due instead to his congenitally deformed arms.

In “Thompson Elevated,” Dureau presents a idealic black bodybuilder from a camera angle and in a pose that makes him appear armless and headless like a Greek statue.

In Dureau’s world, pictures transform. Perfection is unfinished. Beauty is only a trick of the eye away from deformity. And, in what almost appears to be a response to Mapplethorpe’s candid ’80s portrayals of gay sexual abandon — a 1990 picture called “Parts and Particles” — Dureau makes safe sex art erotic, humane, interracial collaboration.