CAMBRIDGE -- Since change defined the career of John Coplans (1920-2003), it makes perfect sense that it should define his photographs, too. Beginning as a painter in Britain, he became a critic in America, an important critic (Coplans was a founder of Artforum). He became an influential museum curator and director. Then he took up photography.
A narrow (if also universal) form of change defines Coplans's photography: physical decay. He was 60 when he began taking pictures, and they were self-portraits -- or, rather, portions of self-portraits. Coplans's pictures show various unclothed parts of his body. "Unclothed" is more accurate than "nude" or "naked" because all the assorted issues attached to the words "nude" and "naked" -- prurience, censorship, physical perfection -- simply don't apply to Coplans's images. They aren't about sex or beauty or even vanity. They're reports on aging: visual autopsies.
The work in "Body Parts -- A Self-Portrait by John Coplans," which runs at MIT'S List Visual Arts Center through Dec. 31, marked a subtle yet significant departure for Coplans. It consists of a series of 26 large-size diptychs that show paired body parts (Coplans's, of course): thighs, calves, buttocks, arms, hands. The photographs present flesh as artifact, flesh as fact, but also divorced from identity (we never see Coplans's head). His flesh fills and dominates the frame, a corporeal Mont Ste.-Victoire, as obsessed over and three-dimensional as anything in Cezanne.
What differs from Coplans's previous work is the cropping and juxtaposing of the photographs so as to suggest images from a medieval bestiary. A forearm or thigh, for example, will be so placed in one photograph as to seem to emerge from the small of Coplans's back in the one next to it. (Only a very narrow strip of white separates each image within the diptychs, making them seem one unit.) The effect is at once pleasing -- the elegant play of curves -- and horrific: This is not how the human body is constructed.
The horror goes deeper. Coplans consciously did these photographs in the tradition of the grotesque. (Shrunken down and painted over, they wouldn't look out of place in the background of a Bosch or Breughel.) What is more grotesque than a flesh-and-blood abstraction: the human form as at once palpably real and absurdly fictive.
It's this duality that makes these photographs so striking. They show the human body as purely imaginary -- a set of biologically inconceivable arrangements -- yet also as something so real we normally shrink from dwelling on it: aged human flesh -- wrinkled, mottled, veined -- a soft, sagging geometry of decay. Mortality isn't pretty, and what we're seeing is a stop-motion view of death. Indeed, the images have a sculptural quality: not just because of their size but even more because of the modeling and shaping of Coplans's anatomy. He is his own clay (the camera is his chisel), and the transition of flesh to clay reminds us of those more common transitions, ashes to ashes and dust to dust.
So matter-of-fact a contemplating of death is unsettling enough. Yet further complicating any response is the fact that Thanatos's great soulmate (its playmate?) is, of course, Eros. These photographs frequently suggest demented couplings: autopsy as orgy. Three images show literal two-backed beasts. Conversely, the least sexy thing in the show is the pouchy hang of Coplans's gray-haired scrotum.
Coplans, who lived near the World Trade Center, began the series shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. He'd made four of the diptychs before realizing there was a connection between them and the terrorist attacks: News reports had been describing the unearthing of victims' body parts in the ruins. That bit of history gives the show a small jolt of topicality. It doesn't last long, though. What's most notable about these images -- certainly what's most unnerving about them -- isn't their relevance to anything contemporary. It's how they speak to something timeless and pre-rational: the intersection between deformity and identity, our anxiety that the shape we take as creatures may define the nature of who we are as people.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.