Lost in Curation: Sofia Coppola

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story by / Heather Seidler

All Mapplethorpe Works © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.
Courtesy of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris/Salzburg.

The world looks fairly different through the eyes of an artist. Images take on form, dimension and color: the hands of an artist reveal and make accessible the proportion and balance of a reality that is invisible to most people. Oscar-winning Sofia Coppola is unequivocally one of those artists.
There are a few things you will already know about Sofia Coppola: she is the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, she wrote/directed Lost in Translation, was the first American woman to win the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival with Somewhere, was the woman behind the Miss Dior ChĂ©rie commercial and was once the consummate muse to (ex-husband) Spike Jonze. Then there are the things you may not know about Sofia Coppola. She recently partnered with Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon on her clothing line Milk Fed (sold exclusively in Japan) and has since collaborated with Robert Wilson, Hedi Slimane and The White Stripes. It should come as little surprise that the filmmaker also harbors a personal passion for art photography. She has in fact, been a student of photography at the California Institute of the Arts and has taken an ardent interest in fashion photography, having once worked as a model.
Her latest project sees Coppola take the role of curator in a new Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in Paris.

Robert Mapplethorpe [1946-1989] was born in New York and took his first photographs using a Polaroid camera. Many of his early polaroids are self-portraits and portraits of close companions, such as legendary artist Patti Smith. Mapplethorpe later acquired a Hasselblad camera and photographed his circle of friends, notably artists, composers, socialites, porn stars and members of the underground S&M scene. Certain photographs are considered shocking to some, due to the explicitness of their content, but they’re also extremely elegant in terms of technical mastery. There is a gentle harshness in shapes and frames, a certain quiescent force of light, which will always distinguish a Robert Mapplethorpe photograph. He became most widely known for his erotic and controversial images documenting the burgeoning gay scene in 1970s New York. In the early 80s, Mapplethorpe photographed more classical images: sculptural nudes of men and women, still life floral scenes and formal portraits of celebrities in frames of timelessness. Whether detailing the lines of a muscle or of a petal, Mapplethorpe defiantly encapsulates beauty in the quiet moments, electricity beneath the surface.

For the new show, Coppola presents the photographer from her own perspective, bringing to light some lesser-known images. “When I was going through Robert Mapplethorpe’s archive at the [Mapplethorpe] Foundation, selecting the photographs for the show, it was interesting to discover images I didn’t know of his,” Coppola said. “For example, it was the first time I saw that he had done sweet portraits of children. It was a side of his work that was completely new to me.”

In revealing a distinct and unseen side of Mapplethorpe, Sofia chose a totally different perspective, one more contemplative and intuitive—highlighting Mapplethorpe’s work in a less academic light. She includes many of his still-life and somber landscape photographs and elected to showcase some of his unexplored portraits of women, children and animals.
Regarding the works she chose to feature, “I try to be intuitive, rather than analyze why I am interested in something. There were, of course, famous images that I knew but it was so fascinating to see photographs I didn’t already know. I wanted to share with everyone a different facet of his talent,” Sofia said.
These images aren’t the ones we typically associate with Mapplethorpe, whose work often tends to punctuate eroticism and celebrate the provocative—taboo images replete with full frontal nudity and an unabashed attitude to sexuality, elements far from Coppola’s oeuvre. “Mapplethorpe’s work implies a certain sexual aesthetic that Sofia has chosen not to present in this show, so she will definitely show a different side to the artist’s work through her selection, which will go beyond the obvious,” says gallery owner Thaddaeus Ropac, who is known for his high-powered art shows and long history of collaborating with fellow creative types to showcase the work of Mapplethorpe. The impresario has been hosting an ongoing series of the works of Robert Mapplethorpe titled “Eye to Eye” in which each exhibition is assembled by a different visionary, including Cindy Sherman (2003) and avant-garde director Robert Wilson.
Coppola has sculpted an exhibition that portrays a nearly-unknown side of the artist, one that is very much in step with her world and reflects her appreciation for the beauty in small moments. Coppola’s world is heavily fueled by imagery, using photographs to help visualize the concept of her films, films that stress emotion over pyrotechnics. Typically scenes from a Coppola flick often have a delicate but substantial, not-quite-there feeling, as if recalled from memory—style often trumps dialogue and the visual takes precedence over the verbal. Coppola uses this exhibit to draw attention to the gentler side of Mapplethorpe’s vision, weaving together images that radiate opposite to the strident, explicit energy his more famous works evoke. She knows how to emphasize, in the silence of suspended moments, the tenderness and emotion innate in the artist’s work.
Animals sprawl, humans gaze without confrontation into the lens, and the edge of potent lands lie calm. Stillness reigns throughout, a stillness that is the trademark of a director interested in moments of contemplation rather than flashes of violence or explosions of high drama. The photographic selections were dictated purely by instinctive vision and the most traditional of the artist’s work have been set aside to create space for the construction of a new narrative.

Some of the significant portraits (on loan from prestigious museums) are those of Paloma Picasso-daughter of Pablo, Katherine Cebrian-grand dame of San Francisco and Lisa Lyons-famous body builder. The footprint of the exhibition revealed much more melancholic than plastic.

Amongst the images, Mapplethorpe’s still life of a Pineapple won hands down. “Everyone loves it but I don’t quite understand why,” admitted Ropac.
A subliminally mysterious and mildly tensed storyboard unwinds black-framed on the Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac walls, and its silently suggestive, visually enchanting plot is left to the audience interpretation just as in one of Sofia Coppola’s films. It really is a can’t miss-must-see exhibition.
Robert Mapplethorpe: Curated by Sofia Coppola, runs through January 7, 2012, at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, 7 rue Debelleyme, Paris. See more at http://www.ropac.net/current/

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