Lisa Lyon: the other Mapplethorpe muse

Everyone (or at least everyone with taste and a spirit of enquiry) knows who Robert Mapplethorpe is, and most of those people will know that he had three great muses – people who modelled for him time and again and helped shape his art.

Sam Wagstaff is one. Patti Smith is the one most people know. Mapplethorpe took the iconic black and white portrait that adorns the cover of her greatest gift to the world, the album Horses. That’s a photo that has resonance way beyond being merely packaging. Ask any teenage girl from the seventies who went on to write poetry, play in a band, or create a fanzine. Ask any boy for that matter.

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I discovered the Mapplethorpe muse who most fascinated me via a large format paperback book I found in a remaindered book stall in the early eighties.  She was an impressively sculpted bodybuilder called Lisa Lyon and the book was called, simply, Lady.

I bought it for a pound, took it home, loved it, imitated it, used it as masturbatory inspiration (hey, what can I say, I like powerful women!).

tumblr_n4j2qgySpn1r9e2vfo1_1280Lyon was, and is still regarded as one of the great female bodybuilders, one of the pioneers. She began her career in martial arts, through the Japanese art of kendo, and because it takes upper body strength, started weight training. Which, in turn, led to bodybuilding.

In 1979 she won the first international contest for female bodybuilders and went on to write the first book on the subject, Lisa Lyon’s Body Magic. She appeared in Playboy and according to Wikipedia could “dead-lift 225 pounds, bench-press 120 pounds, and squat 265 pounds; two and a half times her own weight.”

When photographers requested she do a shoot, she got it. Because she’d actually been an art student at UCLA, she understood both what made a photo work and what work it took to make a photo. She posed for Helmut Newton and for Marcus Leatherdale amongst others. Leatherdale was Robert Mapplethorpe’s office manager and an excellent photographer.

But Mapplethorpe’s photos of Lyon are something else. Like Tom of Finland, Mapplethorpe shot women like he shot men. His portraits of Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Sigourney Weaver and others are devoid of sensuality. They’re kind of blank, blunt, non-relfective. They’re like beautifully crafted passport photos.

But with Lisa Lyon, Mapplethorpe went somewhere else. He created a character in almost every photograph – as if we were channeling Cindy Sherman. There’s Lyon as athlete, dominatrix, bride, fashion icon, boxer, porn star.

“When I first saw her undraped it was hard to believe that this fine girl should have this form,” said Mapplethorpe.

“My relationship with Lisa is not just her body […] I’m just as interested in her head as I am in her body.” He dug and explored the light across her muscular frame, her veined arms, her chiselled jawbone and cheeks.

140911005For her part, Lyon seems to have disappeared from view. She’s still alive, as far as we know. In the meantime, seek out Lady, the book of portraits of Lyon taken by Mapplethorpe.

She’s a strong and inspiring woman, and for me, as important a figure in the NY art scene of the early eighties as Laurie Anderson or indeed Patti Smith herself. She’s just been forgotten.

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My books of 2015 … the rest

#2 Not that kind of girl by Lena Dunham
LenaDunhamI shouldn’t like this book, but I do, just as I love Dunham’s TV series Girls, and her movie Tiny Furniture. What’s that all about?

I’ll be open about one thing. I do find Lena Dunham particularly hot. Is that wrong? She’s funny, intelligent, politically liberal (and engaged), interestingly dressed, frequently naked.

Of course I fancy her!

But I also loved the book because it was recommended to me by real-life girlfriends who had found it inspiring and said it reflected their own lives. As much of Dunham’s work, it’s about that period between leaving school and starting your adult life. And the friends, and the shit ushering jobs, and the attempts to write something meaningful. Going to your friends’ piss poor drama performances, or derivative art exhibitions. Their bad bands. Their poorly attended club nights.

I laughed out loud a lot when I read Not That Kind of Girl. Because I recognised my own life and that of my friends at that stage of our development. And that, more than anything, is why I love Lena.

Check out her blog, Lenny, by the way. It’s an excellent daily reader.

 

#3 Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex-Positive Culture by Carol Queen
CarolQueenA delightful treatise on queer life, and a book that offers another way of living, one that is about self-definition, personal autonomy and pleasure.

Carol Queen managed to put into words something I’d been struggling with my whole life – why, if my culture is queer, my politics are queer, my friends are queer and my art is queer, I am defined by who I’m sleeping with at any given moment?

 

#4 King Kong Theory by Virginie Despentes
Essays on rape, gender, sexuality, and punk rock by the writer of Baise-Moi.

Despentes seemed to take these issues back from the realm of theory, and positioned them anew against the backdrop of her own experience.

She’s one of the freshest writers I’ve read for years, and her anger shines brightly and offers hope, not least because she embraces the act of sex and the practice of sexual choice. She doesn’t hold it at arms length.

 

#5 Sick On You: The Disastrous Story of Britain’s Great Lost Punk Band by Andrew MathesonThe_Hollywood_Brats_5
Even though I’d adopted the lifestyle of punk towards the end of 1976, I’d never heard of the Hollywood Brats.

That’s hardly surprising as their ‘career’ had come to an end by 1975. They were possibly Britain’s first punk band, our own New York Dolls.

Matheson’s book is a riotous carry-on, instantly recognisable to anyone who’s been in a crap band. It’s about bedsits and cider and fag butts. It’s about falling out with a succession of bass-players and managers, and about all the times you nearly have ‘made it’; but for your own ignorance, pride, pig-headedness and stupidity.

Mathewson is the punk Withnail, and it could make a fabulous movie. As long as they don’t cast Noel Fielding, Russell Brand or Bill Nighy, it could even be a great movie.

 

#6 Wreckers of CivilisTGation: The Story of Coum Transmissions & Throbbing Gristle by Simon Ford
Leant to me by artist Juli Watson (who has become something of a partner in crime this year), Wreckers of Civilisation was an excellent introduction to the story of Throbbing Gristle.

With a very few exceptions I still prefer reading about TG than listening to their music (this is an exception).

But TG were as revolutionary as the Sex Pistols, Crass or the Ramones. In both art and music, their impact has been enormous. Many people have had their lives opened to incredible possibility by Cosey, Chris, Sleazy and Genesis. I’m one of them.

 

#7 Pirates, Punks & Politics by Nick Davidson
FC St. Pauli are the adopted German football club of punks, anarchists, hippies and larrikins, supported across the globe by those who feel excluded or morally corrupted by the ManYoos and Real Madrids.

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I used to make a living writing about sport. There are times when I still do. I’ve written extensively about the politics and culture of football, rugby league, Aussie rules and wrestling. This book as a reminder of why I loved sport in the first place, and what was missing from so much of the sport we have access to via television, print and radio media.

St.Pauli are run by their fans, and make collective decisions. They’re based in the inner suburbs of their city, Hamburg, and fans still stand up at matches.  To understand why that’s important you probably have to be a football fan. But to understand why football is important, you just need to pick up a newspaper.

 

#8 Low Budget Hell Making Underground Movies with John Waters by Robert G. Maier
robert maierI’m a huge fan of the work of John Waters. I saw a double-bill of Pink Flamingos and Desperate Living at the old Scala Cinema off Tottenham Court Road in the late seventies, and it was as much a turning point as hearing United by Throbbing Gristle or the first Swell Maps records. I thought – I could do that!

Maier was an insider on all of the early Waters’ films, mostly as Waters’ production manager.

He sheds a harsh light on Waters’ single-mindedness, selfishness and meanness in making his movies. And while Waters also comes across as self-obsessed myth maker, often at the expense of his friends, he also comes across as kind and thoughtful, generous with his gifts, a man who likes to surround himself with those he trusts the most, supporting them in their endeavours and personal trials.

 

#9 Carsick by John Waters
ct-watersfrontis1-jpg-20140529On the other hand there’s this.

Probably the most disappointing read of the year. While it had it’s moments (most of these being the factual interludes where Waters enjoys the company of ordinary drivers who pick him up as he hitch-hikes across the American continent), at least a third of the book, perhaps more, is given over to Waters’ sexual fantasies.

These, perhaps inevitably, are about being picked up and tortured by truckers. I love a good sexual fantasy, particularly when they’re being shared by famous people I admire (I LOVED Madonna’s SEX!), but John W’s wet dreams are tiresome and repetitive.

He’s always fun, but this time I was laughing less than usual. Got a signed copy though, courtesy of my gorgeous friend Elspeth.

 

#10 Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde
AudreLordeIn early summer I asked my friends for a list of great books by women.

The amazing Ami Nisa suggested this book and was then kind enough to lend it to me.

It’s the story of a young black woman growing up in Harlem NYC and her growing awareness of race, sexuality and intelligence. It’s about her writing and her education, and it’s powerful stuff.

She was a contemporary of the Beats, but her story is the flipside of that macho, homo-erotic, misogynistic culture. While the Beats deified ‘negro’ culture (and jazz in particular), Lorde was living with the reality of actually being black in pre-civil rights America. Being working-class, female and lesbian added suffocating layers to her daily struggle, but Lorde is an inspiring figure, tackles life with gusto and triumphs as a writer and as a person.

One of the great autobiographies.

My book of 2015

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#1: COMING OUT LIKE A PORN STAR: ESSAYS ON PORNOGRAPHY, PROTECTION AND PRIVACY (Ed. Jiz Lee)

I’m proud to call Jiz Lee a friend, and although they’re ‘only’ a Facebook friend, they’ve been a Facebook friend for some years. If you haven’t seen Jiz’ work, treat yourself. Jiz (see photo above) is an extraordinary adult performer who just smashes everything you thought you knew about porn.

This book (which was published by an excellent new publisher called ThreeMedia shares intimate personal ‘coming out’ stories from porn performers of many genders, races and ethnicities. Coming out to family, friends, partners, lovers, and community, the writers open up about far more than their personal relationships.

But what this book was really about for ME was ownership and autonomy.

Who owns our bodies, who has a say in how it’s used, defined or displayed? It goes beyond fucking and sucking. It’s political.

These amazingly open writers talk, sometimes unconsciously, about the way powerful coercive forces – government; churches, temples and mosques; the local community; big business – have literally taken ownership of our body rights, where reclaiming them has become a revolutionary act. Which is why the act of ‘coming out’ is dangerous, and why this book is so important.

I’d say it changed my life. 2015 was a year in which I decided more than ever that it was important to define myself, and to own and live that self. And this book inspired that in ways I’m still becoming aware of.

PS: it also serves as a primer to a list of simply amazing queer performers. 2016 will be SO much more interesting as I work my way through that list x thanks Jiz.

PPS: you can order the book here. Do NOT use Amazon!