Artist Rooms: Robert Mapplethorpe (4 stars)

Artist Rooms On Tour brings work of once controversial photographer to Clydebank

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Artist Rooms: Robert Mapplethorpe

This is the latest of the Artist Rooms exhibitions to reach Glasgow, and it’s heartening that it should take place a little off the beaten track at Clydebank Museum, inside Clydebank’s town hall.

The exhibition of black-and-white photographs gives a thorough overview of the artist’s approach to the genre, citing some of his main areas of interest including self-portraiture, celebrities, flowers and still lifes. But vitally, it more or less skips over Mapplethorpe’s preoccupation with sexually explicit subject matter, for which he is so renowned. While this omission allows the show to be accessible and appealing to a wider audience including children, it will undoubtedly come as a disappointment to those hoping to sample the full Mapplethorpe oeuvre.

Despite this, the exhibition bears no shortage of sensuality. Even seemingly conservative subject matter, such as in ‘Orchid and Hand’ (1983), is infused with a gentle profundity that invokes the human condition with mutable, fragile forms merging. A photograph of a wide, flat leaf is beautiful, appearing almost sculptural in stark black and white.

The most commanding works in this overview are two self-portraits shown in close proximity to one another. Both titled ‘Self Portrait’ (1988), one shows Mapplethorpe in ill health strongly grasping a skull-topped walking stick. Taken the year before he died, the photograph showcases the artist’s mastery of form and composition. The skull is sharply in focus while Mapplethorpe’s own blurred face stares defiantly at the camera. The other depicts a close-up of his eyes peering fiercely as if to confront death. His late photographs no longer depict an artist coolly evaluating the world through an enquiring lens, but a man open and honest about the absolute nature of mortality.

Clydebank Museum, Glasgow, until Sat 23 May.

Artist Rooms: Robert Mapplethorpe

Moving, arresting and truly significant work by prolific American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Featuring ground-breaking portraiture of his contemporaries – Andy Warhol, Truman Capote and Patti Smith – and his iconic self-portraits.

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