There are several pockets of “The Perfect Medium” that upset the general Mapplethorpe narrative of sexual deviance and aesthetic purity, however, and these feel the most revelatory. LACMA hosts a preponderance of the early multimedia explorations he engaged in before settling on studio photography, including several brilliantly strange collages in which he explores nascent interests in modernist abstraction, mass media, and male nudity.
The young Mapplethorpe of Smith’s narrative—earnest, confident, endlessly hardworking—is near-palpable in the galleries, especially in his experimentations with three-dimensional media, such as the wonderful altarpiece and assemblages that feel as if they were thrown together from a mix of his own belongings. The humorous pairs of underwear mounted on stretchers make the later sexualized nudes feel lighter and more fun, less somber or pornographic. You remember he was once a young man blurring the lines between sex and art; how wrong it is to read these early works as decadent foreshadowings of the tragedy to come.