Powered by Google
Editors' Picks
Arts + Books
Rec Room
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Adult Personals
Adult Classifieds
- - - - - - - - - - - -
FNX Radio
Band Guide
MassWeb Printing
- - - - - - - - - - - -
About Us
Contact Us
Advertise With Us
Work For Us
RSS Feeds
- - - - - - - - - - - -

sponsored links
- - - - - - - - - - - - -
Sex Toys - Adult  DVDs - Sexy  Lingerie

  E-Mail This Article to a Friend

Brutal beauty
John Coplans and Boris Mikhailov take on the body
"Body Parts ó A Self-Portrait by John Coplans"
At the List Visual Arts Center at MIT, 20 Ames Street in Kendall Square, through December 31.
"Boris Mikhailov: A Retrospective"
At the Institute of Contemporary Art, 955 Boylston Street in Boston, through January 2.

The human body in its disheartening frailty and surprising spiritedness occupies both John Coplansís "Body Parts" at MITís List Center and the Boris Mikhailov retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art. There, however, all similarities end. Coplansís exhibit reads like a visual tone poem, an elegant, quiet, harmonious, and intensely focused meditation on a single theme. Mikhailov delivers an expansive, exuberant, and spontaneous orchestration of far-flung elements in a jumble of sizes and styles. Seeing Coplans is like listening to a score for a single reed instrument; seeing Mikhailov is like hearing a symphony by Stravinsky.

"Body Parts" represents John Coplansís last work; he died at 83, in August 2003. Yet the achievement this series represents is not about age. In the course of creating it, Coplans lost the sight in his one good eye; these remarkable photographs, large (35 by 48 inches) black-and-white diptychs of the artistís own body, are the creation of a man who was legally blind. And they do read like melodies: the eye moves across frames that are positioned close together, as if one were taking in some gigantic musical notation. Coplansís own flesh is made to suggest eighth notes and quarter notes and G clefs as he combines vertical and linear elements of his torso with its elliptical forms. Meticulously executed, balanced but bilaterally asymmetrical, and cropped to look almost like abstractions, the photos come at us in cleverly matched pairs, arms and asses, fingers and feet, calves and thighs.

"Body Parts" may be melodic, but itís also startling and weird, and by degrees that becomes another aspect of its charm. Each frame is like a photographic version of "Jabberwocky" or Mad Libs. A single picture within each diptych depicts a truncated body part or parts ó a hand grabbing a calf, arms extending from fingers to elbows, the backs of his thighs and lower legs. These fragments are in turn paired with some other and not entirely complementary body part. An arm on the right side of one diptych looks as if it were an extension of the leg to its left; the derriere on the right side of another diptych appears to be growing out of the pair of arms to its left. Itís as though each frame were its own Mad Lib animal, headless and improbable creatures all, continuous re-inventions of the same man and body.

One of the many remarkable aspects of this work is its ability to come across as at once intimate and formal, gross and delicate. Yes, youíre looking at some old codgerís scrotum or wrinkly knuckle or varicose vein, but those parts have been made an aspect of a larger design. The body is a stepping stone to something else, a compositional tool. In no Coplans frame do we witness anything that would let us identify the actual person ó no face, no scar, no outstanding peculiarity. For all their discomfiting proximity (theyíre near enough to life size that every hair and nail and pore registers as if it were present), the images never feel invasive or overly personal. Although unmistakably human, theyíve been rendered transcendent, a kind of language we watch transfixed by its undecipherable integrity.

And for all his absorption with skin, his own skin, Coplans is no sensualist. Pleasure remains as absent from his frames as ornithology or politics. Eros, too, is absent, and so are Erosís attendant and lesser deities ó seduction, teasing, titillation. In their place, the artist delivers momentum. Coplansís decapitated forms are all on the move, and their movement is always unpredictable. Sometimes, the two halves of the diptych face inward like shuffled cards. In one, a trunk and legs face an almost identical trunk and legs like two headless bulls charging each other. At other times, the momentum has a leftward or rightward velocity, as when a pair of legs in the right side of one frame appear to lean against a single leg to their left that slopes down at an even greater angle.

Coplans also takes advantage of the white space that separates each diptychís two halves to create an internal tension within each frame. At times, both sides can appear to be pulling against each other, as when two pairs of the same arms meet at the elbow to form a strange pyramid with fingers for feet. In another frame, a leg rises up on the left to be met on the right by a downward sloping arm.

Yet Coplans never allows these highly stylized and frequently similar photographs to become tropes; he never copies himself, heís always exploring. In one diptych, the artist allows the tension that usually exists between the two sides to resolve itself, to find peace. The upper thighs of the artistís legs, positioned in a way that indicates heís lying on his side with one leg resting on the other, create a nearly symmetrical overall design. The line separating the two pictures almost dissolves, and the mirrored pair of pictures work together mysteriously. They double the sense of restfulness, and they make the blank space between them stand in for the rest of the man. The emptiness becomes a palpable absence.

Neither John Coplans nor Boris Mikhailov set out to be a photographer, and perhaps that accounts for some of the renegade vitality both these shows enjoy. Having learned no rules, each man was free to make them up. Yet itís hard to imagine two more dissimilar artists. Coplans started out as a painter before moving on to a more successful career as an art critic and curator (he founded Artforum); he didnít start taking photographs until he was 60. His art is marked by deliberateness, intellectualism, and a self-consciousness with respect to art history. The Ukrainian-born Mikhailov (this is his first major show in the US) started out as an engineer, and we have the KGB to thank for the redirection of his talents ó he was fired from his engineering position when the Soviet Unionís secret police discovered heíd been taking nude photographs of his wife. Expansive, ribald, unpremeditated, and fueled by a desire to confront and undermine convention, his photographs typically treat the spiritual, physical, and social desolation of Soviet and post-Soviet Ukraine and Russia. But not always.

Nowhere is the difference in æsthetics between Coplans and Mikhailov more stark than in those series involving Mikhailovís own naked body. In a 1992 group of very large (63 by 35 inches) black-and-white photos called "I Am Not I (Ich bin nicht ich)," a small and comparatively cleaned-up portion of which is up at the ICA, our naked, tousle-haired, moustached artist sports a series of exaggerated poses: sucking on, straddling or otherwise gesturing with a dildo; pulling at the foreskin of his penis; holding up an enema apparatus. Whatís amazing about these photographs is how their over-the-top silliness ó and thereís no mistaking their outrageousness for anything else ó turns them into studies of clownish transgression. Itís as if Mikhailov had set out to answer the question, what can I do that will land me in jail? At the same time, the boundaries of "I Am Not I" are clearly delimited, harm comes to no one, and they combine with the personality of the artist ó large-spirited, generous, good-humored ó to create an unexpected outcome. Ultimately they come across as tender.

More hilarious and sharper is a 1994 series that also involves nakedness, though usually partial, called "If I Were German." It spoofs another totalitarian regime, Germany of the Nazi era, and unlike "I Am Not I," it involves two collaborators who together with Mikhailov create wry tableaux vivants of a make-believe WW2 kind. Think a porn version of Hoganís Heroes. In one image, a man appears to be screwing a goat from behind, and while he holds the animal upright by its front hooves, Mikhailov kneels on the ground in front of the animal as if to perform fellatio. The title is taken from a Goethe poem "If in the boundlessness of nature . . ."

Yet the best works in the show are Mikhailovís candid photographs of the homeless and the working class, the forsaken streets and the neglected bodies of the people of his native Ukraine. The sadness of those images comes close to overwhelming. And itís precisely because the sadness stops just short of all-encompassing that Mikhailov succeeds at allowing all of us to participate in his vision.

Issue Date: October 8 - 14, 2004
Back to the Art table of contents
  E-Mail This Article to a Friend

about the phoenix |  advertising info |  Webmaster |  work for us
Copyright © 2005 Phoenix Media/Communications Group