Role Play, a traveling exhibition of 25 works by the internationally acclaimed photographer Steven Meisel, finishes its run at Phillips’ flagship, Park Avenue gallery space on March 3. Which means, time is of the essence! If you miss the exhibit, find a selection of six pieces above.
Fashion photography rarely makes its way past the modest confines of the magazine rack. The glossy pages of an Elle or Vogue are a fine way to look at photographs, but, believe me, it was worth a trip to see these images blown up to wall size. To dilate to massive scale what is ordinarily handheld produces a curious and uncanny effect. Not unlike an enormous tube of lipstick or garden hose by Claes Oldenburg, Meisel’s photographs in this context appear magnified, deepened, such that previously unseen details of texture and color begin to appear: the wavy grain of a wooden tabletop; a patchwork blouse made of sequins, beads, and feathers, all in yellow; the veiny underside of a leaf; powder white skin clutching a red, fleshy apple. It’s not that the scale is a gimmick; quite the contrary, it makes blatantly obvious what a shame it is that we normally encounter his images so small.
Even those who don’t know Meisel by name will recognize his work – he’s collaborated prolifically with Vanity Fair, Vogue, W Magazine, and has photographed the cover of Vogue Italia exclusively since 1988. He regularly shoots campaigns for international luxury brands: Versace, Louis Vuitton, Dolce & Gabbana, and Prada, to name a few. A close friend of Madonna, Meisel contributed extensively to her wildly successful erotic art book, Sex (1992), and also made the iconic portrait for the cover of her best-selling album, Like a Virgin (1984).
The Phillips show hones in on Meisel’s unique ability to conjure narrative richness from a few small details. Many of the photographs on view have a cinematic quality; the works in color, especially, feel like set pieces or character studies that invite the viewer to construct a backstory, elaborate a scene. In one image, five teens sprawl forlornly on a beach, practically grimacing as they stare past each other and into the distance. The tight cropping and vaguely Classical arrangement of nearly nude bodies lends a mythological, otherworldly tinge to the standard beach photo shoot. Who are these people? How did they get here?
Meisel deftly glamorizes quotidian moments as well. Taking a cigarette break, walking in a park, lounging by the pool – he manages to imbue these relatively mundane activities with a casual allure. Nowadays, it’s a familiar tactic – much of Meisel’s visual language has been transposed to Instagram, where the name of the game is wrapping the familiar and banal in a gauzy sheen of sophistication and whimsy. Meisel’s photographs, decades before, feel like compositional blueprints for the ways in which, for better or worse, we strive to present ourselves online. Role Play is aptly named – in this body of work, we see Meisel tinkering with different modes of self-presentation, the way we assume roles and the seriousness with which we actively project them, while also maintaining an awareness of the construct. Everyone is faking it beautifully.