“People often say the photos are beautiful, but that is not my intention.”
Artist Robert Mauriello maintains this stance, though his photographs are exquisitely beautiful. He is neither an art photographer nor a glamour photographer, but an artist who draws from multiple sources. He utilizes techniques from the fashion and art worlds, and concepts from his background in philosophy and science. The resulting photographs are both aesthetically pleasing and emotionally complex.
As an art history student interested in depictions of the human body, I am drawn to Mauriello’s portraiture. His nudes never feel objectifying. Naked skin is as much a medium as the fabric he drapes around it. Skin reacts to light, to the camera’s lens, and to the art historical references applied to its surface.
I was eager to collaborate as a model and intellectual counterpoint for Mauriello– to create a dialogue with the photographer that might inform an interesting shoot. I got the chance several weeks ago. On a boiling Friday afternoon I spent the afternoon indoors in Mauriello’s Ridgewood studio, basking in the air-conditioning, clothed in various configurations of fabric. We talked about light. We talked about the nude in art history. We talked about whether art about gender must be political. Here is the result.
I like the thick texture of this woven fabric. The stiffness allowed Mauriello to arrange thick folds across my body. “I like fabrics that can achieve and maintain particular drapings,” he explains. “The active construction of shapes gives [me] more agency.” The thick weave resisted the laws of gravity for a couple minutes, before relaxing and sliding downwards. We were surprised by the resulting shapes and shadows. Watch the progression unfold (pun intended) in this woven series.
Another aspect of Mauriello’s work that this series illuminates is his attention to line through manipulation of light. He uses fashion lighting to achieve a certain crispness that is quite tangible. The result is a stark contrast between light and dark that emphasizes the tiniest of shadows, dramatizing the subtle folds cascading down my chest.
I am struck also by the sharp line of my spine. It undulates down my body but never gives in to the softness we associate with curving shapes, particularly those on a woman’s body. Instead, this curving line feels serrated, like a rotary blade. I think this line provides my likeness with agency and strength. Which brings me to my next point…
Power. Mauriello is fascinated by the concept– by who we give power to and how we represent it visually. These decisions are historically gendered. “Over the last five to ten years I’ve been exploring modern conceptions of masculinity and femininity,” Mauriello says. He subverts the binary by juxtaposing both ends of it in harmonious compositions. “Masculinity should have an openness and vulnerability,” he explains. “Likewise, I like to show the strength and power in the feminine.”
In Roman Centurion, the abundance of sheer white tulle is quite feminine, but its drapery reads as masculine. The fabric billowing in front of my chest recalls the undulating curves of chest armor, while the tulle cascading over my shoulder is reminiscent of a silk cape. Together the garment feels regal, like that of a dutiful centurion. My contropposto stance reinforces this historical association, asserting both action and restraint, as portraits of soldiers and princes have for thousands of years.
What role does my body play in defining my own gender? The martial drapery covers my chest and hips, preventing the viewer from using those as evidence to make a case for the female. My skin becomes a neutral playground upon which the photographer has placed ‘conflicting’ visual clues. And yet, there is nothing conflicting about the composition. It feels harmonious.
It may be surprising, perhaps subconsciously, for the viewer to see a work that subverts gender norms while remaining beautiful. For a work to do both undermines the contemporary condition. Perhaps it demonstrates the cracks in this condition (and the ability of artists like Mauriello to create them).
I view such strikes against aestheticism and gender to be political, but it is important to note that Mauriello does not view his work in this vein. According to the artist, feminist interpretations of his work as a call to action would be regressive. Aspects of his work that don’t fit (what he perceives to be) the feminist activist narrative would be lost.
Regardless of whether you agree with Mauriello’s interpretation of feminist rhetoric, his binary-breaking portraits can shift the way we see ourselves. It takes seeing different things as beautiful to accept them as normal.
…And Mauriello is quite the master of repurposing these new and different things in traditional molds. For Angel, Mauriello utilized the same white tulle from Roman Centurion, but for an entirely different composition. The drapery contours the female shape, revealing more skin, and rendering it more traditionally feminine. But it is also much more confrontational than Roman Centurion, in which my averted gaze invited the viewer’s consumption of my body.
Here, I dare the viewer to maintain eye contact without letting his eyes wander. There is something unnerving about being caught in the act of looking at a woman’s body. It challenges traditional notions female submission to the male gaze. Emotions accumulate: surprise, embarrassment, fear, lust.
This phenomenon recalls Manet’s Olympia, the infamous painting of a sex worker who had the gall to make eye contact with the viewer in 1865. It made quite the stir in Paris. Somehow, 153 years later, self-aware nudes still have the power to unnerve. Mauriello recognizes this tension and the power it holds. By utilizing it alongside sensuality he creates a vivid image that is both aesthetic and political (whether he intends it or not).
Mauriello’s body of work often exhibits this duality. In Pink and Blue, the juxtaposition of “feminine,” pink and “masculine” navy blue disrupts our associations with each color. I’m accustomed to seeing pink amongst pom-poms and barbies. The use of navy rids the color of these connotations, introducing an interpretation of pink that is neutral.
My brain recognizes this color experience as new, but simultaneously registers it as harmonious. The result is a photograph that holds me in its grasp, as I search to reconcile change and loveliness. Mauriello understands the psychological implications of mixing colors, and uses this to make dynamic visual compositions.
Mauriello is fascinated by the history of color. He cited the Phoenicians– the inventors of purple– as a source of inquiry. He recalled the importance of color in both royal courts and television marketing campaigns. Color-coding male and female clothing and toys required parents to buy twice as many toys– a pink set for Tina and a blue one for Tom.
My discourse with Mauriello has made me question a lot of thoughts I have about aestheticism and gender. I wonder about my love of pink, and my desire to adhere to standards of femininity– to what extent are these urges environmental, and to what do I owe biology? How can I combat these harmful restrictions on personal identity– especially when they create institutionalized violence towards the LGBTQ+ community?
Robert Mauriello’s work is a conceptual treasure trove. There is so much to unpack emotionally and intellectually about the way we perform our identities. The artist is also an expert and innovator in photographic techniques– I could have spent an entire article discussing lighting alone. Or written a tome on his collection of textiles. However, I am obsessed with dismantling traditional notions of femininity, so here we are.
Until next time!