John Coplans, Michael Schmidt: The Lingering Drama of the Body — at Galerie Nordenhake

John Coplans, Michael Schmidt
The Lingering Drama of the Body
Galerie Nordenhake
Lindenstrasse 34, 10969 Berlin
November 21, 2020 – March 13, 2021

This exhibition brings together the work of two artists who’s photographic oeuvres challenge normative representations of the human body and lay bare a corporality that often remains obscured. In John Coplans’s “Self Portraits” (1984-2003) and Michael Schmidt’s series “Frauen” (1997-99) the artists subvert the genre of the traditional portrait. Both artists worked with analogue black-and-white photography and share within their practice an uncompromising formal approach, a serial mode of working, as well as an idiosyncratic visual language. Above all, their practices inquire into the ever-shifting meaning, tone and cadence evoked by groupings and suites of individual images.

John Coplans (1920 – 2003) described his practice of self-portrayal akin Alice’s step “through the looking-glass” into another, fantastic world, as a process of becoming immersed with the past. Coplans did not begin his series of self-portraits until he was 60 and his frank exploration of his own naked and ageing body can be alternately humorous, ponderous, and disquieting in its forthright observation. Extremely enlarged, the depicted body parts fill the picture plane and become an abstract landscape of skin texture and body contours. The absence of his head in all of these portraits creates a distancing moment and emphasises their iconic, universal character.

In his renowned polyptychs “Self-Portrait, Frieze”, the artist presents varying poses of his full figure on parallel panels. The bodies on the individual panels are divided horizontally into three separate picture segments. Within each segment of these multi-part works there is a subtle change of scale, perspective and lighting. Through this visual jolt, the eye is not able to grasp the body as a whole. Sculptural qualities are equally evident in the large scale photographs of his “Hands” and “Fingers”, which undergo a quasi anthropomorphic transformation and seem – in analogy to the whole body – to walk, stand, dance, be closely intertwined, sometimes evoking also our evolutionary kinship with animals.

Coplan’s examination of the formal qualities of posture, gestures, and skin folds is often accompanied by a sense of ambiguous and ironic staging. In many of the photographs, formal strategies seem to be consciously deployed to create a counterbalance to the boldness with which he presents his body without embellishment. Playing to the idea of the classical nude and yet show an ageing body, thus questioning popular cultural images of the body and the idealisations of the male body inherited therein.

Michael Schmidt (1945-2014), on the other hand, with his series “Frauen” (1997-99), wanted to create a portrait of a particular generation. For Schmidt it became evident that a generation of women was emerging in Germany at the end of the millennium and that they expressed a new self-consciousness and self-confidence in their bodies and body language. Comprising 81 pictures, the series reads like a typology of women on the threshold of “adulthood”. The sober black-and-white photographs show their bodies – dressed as well as undressed – fragmented in different details. Sometimes the body fragments appear as almost abstract forms, sometimes Schmidt focuses on the face as in a classical portrait or shows the body in three-quarter nude, but without showing the head, like Coplans.

This is not a voyeuristic gaze; the nudity is not sexualised nor staged photographically. The women are shown in all their authentic ambivalence as self-confident and strong while vulnerable and insecure in their gender performance. Social norms and frictions are reflected in the pictures through choice of clothing, signs of shaving, marks left by the bra on the skin, all inscribing themselves into the body.

Through his formal pictorial language and the grouping of the individual photographs in monumental blocks or rhythmic sequences Schmidt creates, like Coplans, a representation in which the individual stands exemplary of a collective human experience. Defeating medial and commercial views of the female body, they inevitably bring the viewer back to reality and thus to him or herself.

The drama of the represented bodies, which are constantly changing, evolving or in decay, is in stark contrast to the mode of sober and formal representation. The work of both artists is not that of narration, but rather about making the unseen palpable. The subtle poetry of their photographs is inseparable from their political implications, and ultimately speaks of the role of the individual in society and of the body as a politically charged field of human experience.