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    Student Voice: 10th Graders Contemplate Works by Artists Robert Mapplethorpe and Alice Neel

    By Jenn Bowman

    (Editor’s Note: Teacher Jenn Bowman of San Francisco’s Mission High School is teaching LGBTQ Studies. In this column, Bowman’s students share their thoughts about LGBTQ-related matters, including their concerns, what they have learned in class and more. Recently, Bowman’s students were asked to choose some of their favorite LGBT-related artworks and to write about them. We present essays written by two of her 10th grade students.)

    Robert Mapplethorpe, “Self Portrait”

    Maria Sagum: Robert Mapplethorpe was an American photographer born in Floral Park, New York, on November 4, 1946. He studied various forms of art when he attended Pratt Institute, where he had the chance to grow as an artist away from the suburbs where he grew up. His photographs had a variety of subjects ranging from self-portraits and flowers to sculptures and nude models.

    He was not afraid to showcase even his most controversial pieces, such as portraits of members of the S&M community. He continued to work after being diagnosed with AIDS in 1986. Even after passing away in 1989 due to AIDS-related complications, his work was the start of a culture war in 1989, when his exhibition of explicit photographs called The Perfect Moment caught the attention of Republican Senator Jesse Helms. Helms was outraged when he discovered that the National Endowment for the Arts had funded the exhibition. He got more than 100 other Congress members to write to the NEA, causing the museum to cancel the show. Artists in the Washington, D.C., area, however, projected Mapplethorpe’s work on the outside of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The show eventually found another venue at the Washington Project for the Arts, where the exhibition was a success and one of his most attended events.

    The piece that I chose is titled, “Self Portrait,” and was taken in 1980. The striking black and white image features Mapplethorpe from the side wearing a debonair fur coat and dramatic makeup. The lighting and composition of the photo make the subject look elegant and refined. By expressing himself in this way, he is resisting the gender roles forced upon our society. Being a male that wears makeup was something that, at the time, was not something many people were proud to be. This photo gave a voice to those who were silenced by society.

    I was drawn to this picture because Mapplethorpe’s usual attire is very stereotypically masculine. This picture highlights the strict gender binaries that our society is constricted by, and how they can be broken. By portraying himself in this manner, Mapplethorpe is conveying through this image that not following strict gender roles should be more normalized and accepted. This concept caught my attention because of how big of an issue this still is today. Pieces like this that portray breaking traditional gender roles as something that can be described as grand and magnificent give hope to people today who have never seen themselves represented in this way.

    Alice Neel, “David Bourdon and Gregory Battcock”

    Angelina: Alice Neel is known for her oil paintings of lovers, family and friends, and the incredible realism she uses in her paintings. Her portraits are very intense. Her use of color can convey warmth, cold, frustration, misery and life.

    She wanted to have a plan before she started a painting. “I am never arbitrary,” she said. “Before painting I talk to my sitters and they unconsciously assume their most typical pose, which in a way involved their character and social standing; what the world has done to them and retaliation.”

    Although she was not a lesbian, she was very much a feminist, and painted portraits of gay couples before it was even legal to be gay. Her painting David Bourdon and Gregory Battcock is an image of two men sitting next to one another. One of the men is in a suit and tie, and the other man is sitting in his underclothing. I wasn’t sure what this painting was about, or how to think of it, but I began to look at the details.

    I noticed their facial expressions and body language: the man in his undergarments is seated in a kind of relaxed manner, but is trying to show that he is classy. He has on yellow underwear, red socks and a white t-shirt. The man seated at the right is seated on a blue couch and is wearing a brown suit, blue dress shirt, brown boots, a green and red tie with polka dots, and glasses.

    This image caught my eye because I wanted to know what the relationship was with these two people. I felt like there was something about the man in his underwear; maybe he had lost a lot, but he still had his pride. It made me think about what clothing does to people. If people are dressed up for an occasion, they can feel confident and like they can conquer the world, but they would also have to be comfortable within themselves.

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