REVIEW: (George Platt Lynes) A Disposition for Spiritual Fulfillment


George Platt Lynes
On View Until: February 21
Robert Miller Gallery, 524 West 26th St, New York, NY, 10001

I grabbed the George Platt Lynes press release that sat on the front counter while the gallery receptionist typed away, busily on her keyboard. Reading the press release, I got no satisfaction. His separate art practice of photographing nude men from the 1930’s until death; there must have been a greater intent rather than simply using inventive lighting techniques to visually translate the “physical and psychological nuances of his subjects.”

An artist repeatedly uses the same subjects; goes back to the same themes over a lifetime because of an internal gnawing, themes that ‘rouse inspiration rather than just being for experimental play to pass by the time, or to please an audience.

Walking to the back of the gallery, there was a need to expose his deeper psychological intent. I looked at the subjects first: male bodies seen in a straightforward and almost statuesque manner, much like looking at classical figures seen in famed paintings, mixed in with the unavoidable “staginess” that comes from a photographic studio. In terms of visual composition, line, form and light are studied and experimented with, pushing the conventional studio aesthetic into new directions. Lynes examines the idealized male body in its fullness, not its parts nor does he reveal prepossessing faces, but our attention is directed by the lighting, meant to accentuate Man’s contour and frame, exposing the male body as something so graceful.

George Platt Lynes gives us focal points to look at because of his technique of how he lights: we can see the body’s architecture in a new mode. One can not only sense homoeroticism in how his males are displayed and looked at, but there is a sense of softness or even tenderness that can not be denied in how he gazes at his male subjects. We can see gentleness in a bent knee, a set of freckled narrow hips, a twisting of the back. This gentle mode of seeing is juxtaposed with bolder poses like a reclined head and torso, hard not to notice a muscular build and genitalia or even an athletic handstand or full frontal nude with arms behind the head, all being standard power poses.

Detail from a photograph by George Platt Lynes
Detail from a photograph by George Platt Lynes (placed on the second wall)

Walking over to the second wall in this exhibition, I see Lynes’ work take a new stylistic direction, making reference to mythological figures and tales, transforming his photographs into a symbolic narrative that is both literary and a reference to culture. The male and female bodies are used here like the displaying of objects, to construct, re-create and affirm a meaning for himself.

I see his need for affirmation when I stop at the image of a man kneeling before a woman on a square plinth, painted as if she were a marble sculpture. She covers herself, as if she is a newly-born Venus, as if she was taken out of a Botticelli painting. He holds a chisel and hammer in each hand, but the most peculiar element in this image is that his left hand with the chisel rests on a sculpted white hand with outstretched fingers, that lays at the base of her, in front of her feet. A scene of sculptor creating and submitting to his creation is a recognized one, but here, in George Platt Lynes’ scene – is there a lack of aspiration or even hesitation towards the glorified female ideal?

The last image on this second wall is a photograph of two women caught underneath a fishing net, lit by glamorized Hollywood lighting suggesting that the female figure is a commodity, something that is caught and captured, in other words something good to eat up (to look at). The image that follows this on the third wall shows a naked woman in a domestic scene, but she herself appears to be dead, a look of shock or disturbance seen in her wide eyes, toppled over her beauty station like a puppet or doll in front of that glowing mirror that screams out vanity and constructed beauty. Female nudes take up this third wall and certainly are photographed differently compared to the first wall (of male figures), and his females are certainly not seen as inferior. The poses are somewhat equivalent when both walls of images are compared, but we seem to look at the female as she already is. The lighting has gotten flat, there is no emphasis. His female figures lack the personal attachment or erotic charge: they are not emotional images, but rather are heavily layered with a symbolism.

The case of how beautified Woman is in American culture, but not Man’s was underlined and enlarged when I reached the last image in the exhibition. George Platt Lynes begins his own discussion in his separate art practice by sharing his own person with us, his own way of looking at gender, maybe even expressing his own personal frustration that does not shy away from criticizing and commenting on the perception of culture and society from that time, which he does in a truly spiritual and intellectual exchange between himself and his subjects.

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