“After taking this image, I knew I was onto something that had never been seen before,” Robert Andy Coombs says, looking back on Nude on Grass, a self-portrait he created five years ago. “Being disabled, I don’t get to see my body or explore it very often, so photographing helps me appreciate it for what it is,” he tells us. “It shows all the different aspects of what makes my body unique and beautiful by showcasing intimate areas; like my floppy crippled wrists and the tan lines where my splints lay, my suprapubic catheter, scars from my G-tube and tracheotomy, and my beautiful tattoos.”
That photograph was the first in a series he’s titled CripFag–a reclamation of the words “crip” and “fag” as well as a tender exploration of sex and love, disability and care. After sustaining an injury to his spinal cord in college, Coombs searched for representations that resonated with his experiences. “I felt so uninformed from my medical professionals about disability and sexuality that I had to find it elsewhere,” he remembers. “There were very few resources to learn from, so I decided to take matters into my own hands and started creating images I wanted to see in the world.”
Nude on Grass was created when the artist was in the process of applying to the Yale School of Art. He graduated with his MFA during the pandemic, and his first solo museum exhibition is currently on view at the Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University. The show features selections from CripFag, Nude on Grass among them. The exhibition is titled Notions of Care.
In the years since he first made the portrait, Coombs has continued to photograph himself, alone and with close friends, many of whom he met while at Yale. The resulting images are enduring reminders of their love and the time they spent together. “Some of my subjects have never had an intimate relationship or experience with someone who has a disability,” Coombs says. “I will always cherish our behind-the-scenes memories because of all the helpers that, if you’re lucky, you will see in the photos. There is always a hint of the people behind the camera that you will see if you look closely.”
The famed art critic Jerry Saltz once compared the composition of a photo by Coombs to Dead Christ With Angels, an 1864 painting by Edouard Manet. The bible story on which that painting is based retells the tale of Mary Magdalene, who, upon hearing that Christ’s body is missing, peers into his tomb. In the bible story, Christ’s body is gone, replaced by two angels. For whatever reason, Manet diverged from that telling. In his painting, Christ hasn’t vanished. He’s right there with the angels–flesh and bone.
In Coombs’ photos, perhaps we can find a similar reverence for the beauty and divinity of human flesh, so often seen bathed in golden light. During the pandemic, when contact between loved ones became painfully restricted, the artist says his pictures became a “saving grace” for him and his friends. He tells me, “They gave us hope for the day that we could touch again.”
See Notions of Care Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum FIU through November 7th, 2021.