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Like the day he was born: a piece from John Coplans’ Body Parts: A Self Portrait.

In the Mind’s Eye
By David Brickman

Body Parts: A Self Portrait by John Coplans
Tang Teaching Museum and Gallery, through April 11

Is John Coplans the author of the photographs now on view at the Tang Museum? Or is he more of a performance artist, collaborating with a photographer to produce these images of his elderly, naked self?

The final part of an extended photographic project begun in 1984, Body Parts, A Self Portrait presents 26 equal-sized diptychs, each a pair of semi-abstracted close-ups of the 83-year-old Coplans’ nude body in all its worn glory. Completed shortly before he died in 2003, the work continues the exploration of form, perception and self-image begun in the earlier work, but with the added twist of creating curious, often bizarre combinations through pairing.

In all the photographs, the question of authorship is valid, because Coplans was always in front of—not behind—the lens, directing the activity and imagery by means of a video monitor. In this latest group, it becomes even more significant in light of the fact that Coplans had become functionally blind. Unable to see, he abandoned the video hookup altogether and directed entirely from his imagination.

The resulting sequences of images range from the delicate to the grotesque, drawing in equal measure from the natural state of Coplans’ deteriorated physique and the unnatural shapes he discovers both within the pictures and through their juxtaposition. It is a worthy pursuit with the happy end of playing with our perceptions of both physical appearance and physical reality.

Apart from the appealingly subtle tones of black and white achieved with the use of 4-by-5-inch Polaroid positive-negative material and the subsequent expertly made 17-by-22-inch silver prints, there is the somewhat unpleasant fact of time’s signature on the old man’s body. Wrinkles, spider veins, blackened toenails and shiny, depilated skin are all rendered in sweet shades of gray. Then, the pictures are joined to make surrealistic, beastly figures—many-limbed, double torsoed, creeping low, rising up, motoring along or merely grappling.

Many of the combined forms are pachyderm-like, weighty and plodding; some appear truly freakish, while others are more dreamily envisioned. All reveal an openness that is strikingly childlike, and a welcome sense of humor. But there is a dark side, too, to this work—Coplans began this series shortly after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, in the vicinity of the fires, with the awareness that burned and dismembered bodies were being found in the rubble there.

It is only coincidence that Coplans died, too, after completing these pictures. They are not elegiac in feeling; rather, they look unblinkingly at old age, and in a very fresh way—then they start anew with the wacky pairings to go well beyond that artistic tradition and link with others. It feels more like a beginning than an ending, more optimistic than sad.

A hardcover book was published in conjuction with the exhibition, a joint venture of the Tang and the List Visual Arts Center at MIT. In a prologue to the book (which reproduces all 26 pairs in very fine duotone offset), Coplans gives a cogent and concise history lesson on the art of the grotesque. His writing completes our understanding of his work without preaching or condescending—such excellent writing comes as no surprise, considering that he was once the editor of Artforum, and is the author of several important monographs on artists such as Cezanne and Warhol.

And, yes, I believe he is also the author of the wonderful and wondrous pictures in this exhibition—even if he himself couldn’t see them except in his mind’s eye.

A dialogue on the art of John Coplans will be at the Tang Teaching Museum, Skidmore College, at 7 PM tonight (Thursday, March 25). 

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