If one were forced into the most abbreviated review of the mini retrospective of Jimmy DeSana at Salon 94 Bowery, it would have to be: “It’s about time.” Of course, better late than never, and decades after he created this work, the difficulty of his vision is unmistakable. The ability of DeSana’s art to provoke, tease, and seduce us with images that confront the emotional and anatomical boundaries of self may be why his pictures seem so stunningly fresh, even after they have been imitated for so long. They were made in the golden age of transgression that was New York City from the mid Seventies and early Eighties. But revisiting them today, the only hint of nostalgia is for that moment when radicalized gestures spoke directly to a like-minded community, a time when otherness was more a commonalty than an individual conceit.
DeSana’s portraits seem to spring from their subjects like stolen glimpses from an ongoing drama. His greatest hits include William Burroughs, Debbie Harry, Jack Smith, Laurie Anderson, and Yoko Ono. But the flavor of “Party Picks,” on view through August 9, is delivered in the lurid theatrical tableaus of his studio, where ritualized transformation conjured up unspeakable desire as an intimate, private language writ large. Here the body becomes a playground of imaginative invention (the show is titled after a DeSana work in which festively adorned toothpicks protrude like torture devices from between the teeth in his subject’s mouth). His art abrades the thin membrane between pleasure and pain with an ecstatic, unnerving frisson.
A formidable figure of the downtown New York art world, DeSana was an artist’s artist, more an inspiration than a mainstream contender. A standout in some of the most important shows of the era, including The Times Square Show and New York, New Wave, he was represented briefly by Pat Hearn while she was still alive. Highly influential to a number of now-prominent artists including Laurie Simmons, who has lovingly managed his estate since DeSana’s passing as a result of AIDS in 1990, and Robert Mapplethorpe, whose debt is so extensive it might well be considered a crime, his work was prescient about images of youth culture. The underlying doubt and uncertainty of DeSana’s art perhaps lacked the authority that demands a larger audience in the end. His photographs exist within a level of disorienting complexity that apparently remains too problematic for the current polemics of identity politics.