December 2009, Patti Smith & Robert Maplethorpe @ Alison Jacques Gallery


Patti Smith at Robert Maplethorpe: A Season in Hell
Alison Jacques Gallery
16-18 Berners Street
London, W1T 3LN
14 October through 21 November, 2009

The evening of Tuesday the 13th of October seemed as ordinary as any other end of day here in London. Perhaps a bit nippier than usual, but nothing suspect about a cool autumn night. In Fitzrovia, the urbane district just north of Oxford Street, the black cabs zipped along its warren of well trod streets at their usual pace. That is until they hit Berners Street, where a mass of (what seemed to be several hundred) ardent fans spilled and sprawled across the pavement in anticipation of a performance by Patti Smith at the Alison Jacques Gallery opening of Robert Mapplethorpe: A Season in Hell - a new interpretation of works by the acclaimed and oft scorned artist Robert Mapplethorpe, including rarely seen collages and (of course) photographs.

Inside the gallery, foot traffic was at an absolute standstill. Even if clambering one's way into Alison Jacques's stylishly minimalistic space proved possible, shimming past the foray to the room where Mapplethorpe's works were exhibited would not be in the cards, except for those who'd apparently queued up hours in advance. However, craning of the neck might reveal glimpses of extraordinary black and white images – and plenty of them. Fortunately for those keen to experience an up close and personal performance by Mapplethorpe's long time friend Patti Smith, she had decided to move to the outside steps and accommodate the crowds who were there to hear her songs.

Before getting down to business with a rousing set of song and spoken word, Smith made her rounds in the street, making sure to chat and pose for pics with any and all folks intent to meet her. Calm, gracious and beaming with delight to witness such a turn out for her old friend Robert's art, Patti established an intimate tone of appreciation for the rest of the night. Taking the stage, she played a couple of new songs especially written for the opening, passionately recited the lyrics to “People have the Power” and (wow, wow, wow!) led the audience in an acapella rendition of “Because the Night”. Between songs, she spoke of her close relationship with Mapplethorpe as well as with writer Jim Carroll and her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith, evoking with her warm and anecdotal account of a vibrant and edgy New York that's sadly all but gone. The fact that all three men have died added thoughtful substance to Patti's words, her own experiences and longevity seeming to come to terms with this new century as she spoke.

After Patti's performance, the throngs of rock fans politely transformed into a somewhat orderly assemblage of gallery goers, filing through the exhibition amazed to have been part of Patti's mini-concert as well as to be viewing such remarkable art. At once unyielding and present, Mapplethorpe's photographs stand the test of time even after the two decades since his passing. Perhaps in today's world of “Will and Grace” and “Queer Eye”, Mapplethorpe's subversive focus may lack the cultural wallop it once had, but nevertheless retains impact and an ability to provoke, with its consideration of beauty beyond the confines of what's narrowly deemed decent by mainstream society. With respect to his collages, the works on view in A Season in Hell offer insight into the artist's Catholic upbringing, as they paved the way for the later observances and statements made with his camera. In all, Robert Mapplethorpe: A Season in Hell (named after French poet Arthur Rimbaudʼs 1873 extended poem) marks the 20th anniversary of the famed photographer's untimely death. It was an exhibition well worth adding to one's arts calendar.




Chris Osburn

Chris Osburn is an American transplant living in London where he has a blast working as a freelance photographer, writer, consultant, blogger and more. 

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