A powerful and progressive reading of Mapplethorpe coalesces in Cal Performances’ ‘Triptych’

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A single white “X” filled the screen, its contrasting edges sharp against a black background. A single man sat on the stage, staring out at the audience with an intense hold. And then, a single sound signaled the commencement of Cal Performances’ latest theatrical collaboration: “Triptych (Eyes of One on Another).”

As the “X” began to bleed into the background, it formed an ambiguous figure that morphed into one of Robert Mapplethorpe’s famous images: a man standing beside another man, who is hung upside-down, strapped to the floor and ceiling. The dominator aggressively holds on to his subject’s penis, and maintains that same intense stare.

The image hung, for only a moment, before quickly darting off the screen, mesh-like and gray. Behind it sat an orchestra and a small choir clad in structured black shirts and cream-colored silk dresses. The ensemble took a breath, and began to layer their voices to create a surround sound, operatic in style but chaotic in texture.

The composition of the stage furthered the relations between the performers and the main context: the photographs of controversial artist Robert Mapplethorpe. As he worked predominantly through the 1980s, Mapplethorpe captured complex sexual identities and preferences, opening up discourse regarding the limits and the extensions of pleasure. “Triptych” furthered that exploration by exposing the liminal space between harsh and soft social presentations of sexuality.

Bryce Dessner, composer of “Triptych,” taps into liminality by combining multiple mediums to create a sensory experience of sound, sight and pure emotion. Dessner divided the tribute to Mapplethorpe into three sections labeled “X,” “Y” and “Z.” Mapplethorpe’s portfolio “X” contains images of gay S&M acts, “Y” contains floral still-life photographs and “Z” contains Black men in homoerotic poses.

The contrasting black and white spaces within the provocative images, coupled with models’ postures, did evoke a sense of dominating voyeurism. That intrusion, however, was presented alongside contrasting lyrical poetry.

Some of the poems for “Triptych” were originals — written by the librettist korde arrington tuttle — others by contemporaries of Mapplethorpe, such as Patti Smith and Essex Hemphill. Passages from Hemphill’s works such as “What the rose whispers / before blooming / I vow to you,” soften Mapplethorpe’s models, aligning specific sexual preferences with qualities of the divine. 

Liminality thrives within Mapplethorpe’s images, as they contain delicate human skin, bulging muscles and softly gazing eyes. There lie multiple perspectives of beauty, multiple viewings of what it means to crave and celebrate sex and the human form. Mapplethorpe was able to deviate from heteronormative sexual norms, challenging his audience to frame his subject matter in an acceptable, gratifying light.

While Mapplethorpe notably addresses queer sexuality, there is much contention surrounding his large portfolio of Black portraiture. A major critic of Mapplethorpe’s objectification of the Black body was Hemphill himself, and “Triptych” paid attention to this rift through combining Hemphill’s poems with the repeated clause “When you shoot a Black body.” The chorus members sang that phrase over and over again, until the sensation was cyclical.

This sequence continued as the screens projected flashing portraits, which were shown progressively faster and faster, until they became a blur of faces and expressions. The intensity of this part of the performance took up necessary space, to identify the possible power dynamic that formed between Mapplethorpe and his models. This specific reading placed Mapplethorpe’s works into the modern context, expanding upon the multiplicity of what lies in his captured images.

In a similar vein to his other pieces, however, a battle between contrasting forces is present. In breathtaking images there are problematic sentiments, in provocative and unnerving ones there is beauty to be found. This is the liminality that “Triptych” explores, the complexity that the human condition personifies.

Mapplethorpe’s works alone allow for exploration — of what it means to be sexual, to be carnal, to be dominated. “Triptych” expands this experience, capitulating off the evoked emotions from the images to pay homage to the pain and the pleasure of the queer identity. Complex stories demand complex performances, and the construction of “Triptych” pushed the boundaries of sight and sound to explore Mapplethorpe and his subjects.

Contact Francesca Hodges at [email protected].