HANOVER, N.H. — What does it mean to transgress? Well, that’s easy enough. Someone who transgresses violates a law or norm or precept.
What does it mean, though, for an artist to transgress? Right and wrong are ethical and moral terms, not aesthetic. Yet it’s not quite that simple, since art is inseparable from society, with, yes, its many laws and norms and precepts.
Art does not — it cannot — exist in a human vacuum. It’s defined by audience as well as by maker and subject. Transgression, artistically speaking, arises from the interplay of those three elements. “Shadowplay: Transgressive Photography From the Hood Museum of Art,” which runs at the Hood through Dec. 8, shows how complicated, and interesting, that interplay can be.
There are 43 photographs, ranging in date from 1964 to 2010. Not surprisingly, many relate to aspects of human sexuality. The transgression is a three-fer when Robert Mapplethorpe shows two gentlemen in leather-suited regalia. The artist wants to offend. The subjects know their behavior is outré (for lack of a less loaded word). Viewers know they are looking at something most people would consider offensive. Yet it so happens that the two gentlemen, Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter, look as unobjectionable as pie on a plate. The transgressive element is their garb — and what it indicates about their off-camera proclivities.
The issue in many of these pictures is the opposite: an absence of garb. Nudity has a long and exalted tradition in Western art. Its acceptability diminishes when treated less traditionally.
The other Mapplethorpe in the show presents a handsomely proportioned, unclothed African-American male in full profile. No naughty bits (to use a technical term) are visible. Even though the image inevitably summons up various American kinks about race and sexuality, the overall effect is to evoke classical statuary — tradition on the hoof, or plinth, as it were. But the Mapplethorpe connection inevitably places the image within a transgressive context.
Context is so often the determining factor here. Tod Papageorge’s “Zuma Beach” shows some unclothed people at a nude beach in Southern California, so the lack of bathing suits is no big deal. It hangs adjacent to a Garry Winogrand photograph of a bare-breasted woman in New York’s Central Park, surrounded by gawkers. The juxtaposition is wonderfully telling — and all the finer for the East Coast/West Coast parallel and the fact that Papageorge and Winogrand were friends.
Sometimes the context is familial. Les Krims’s image of a plump, older woman sunning her bare breasts in a chaise longue is a bit startling, if only because our culture puts such a premium on youth and attractiveness when it comes to the presentation of nakedness. That aside, though, there’s nothing all that objectionable about it — until one reads the title: “Mother Sunbathing.” Oh. The obverse of that situation is Sally Mann’s “Luncheon in the Grasses.” It’s an homage, of course, to Manet’s celebrated painting “Dejeuner sur l’herbe” — except that the beautiful naked female in the center of Mann’s picnickers is a child. Oh, again. Does her being the photographer’s daughter make the image more or less transgressive? Or exploitative may be the more relevant word.
Transgression is a serious business. People used to get burned at the stake for it. Yet comedy has its place in “Shadowplay.” The title of Larry Fink’s “After Hours Club, New York City, April 1990” warns you about the possibility of an uh-oh factor. But it can’t prepare you for the ludicrously louche figure who dominates the image. He’s not so much lounge lizard as lounge walrus, heavy on the hubba-hubba (and I do mean heavy).
Although the title of Fiona Foley’s “HHH #1” offers no indication of transgressiveness, the image itself is unnerving as Fink’s is not. It shows seven hooded figures — ostensibly members of an Australian organization called Hedonistic Honky Haters, a tribute to the Ku Klux Klan, only in reverse. Its members are black and wear robes with multicolored patterns. The concept’s pretty funny — except that the seven men’s peaked black hoods look quite disturbingly satanist.
The French writer Madame de Staël famously said that to understand all is to forgive all. Something similar might apply here: to explain a transgression is to make it less threatening — or perhaps not even threatening at all. If that is so, then the most transgressive image in “Shadowplay” has nothing to do with sex or race or forbidden behavior. Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s “Romance of Ambrose Bierce #3” shows three children and a doll sitting in a set of decrepit bleachers. All wear grotesque masks. The contrast between mundane setting and matter-of-fact poses with nightmare faces is disconcerting in the extreme, yet in a way that no amount of speculation can account for. So many of the images in “Shadowplay” contradict how people are expected to behave. Meatyard’s photograph contradicts what people are expected to be. It takes us from reality to dream, where the sleep of reason produces monsters and no law or norm or precept can ever obtain.