San Francisco

Joel-Peter Witkin

Over the past six years, Joel-Peter Witkin has gotten a sudden wide reputation as a sort of upstart Rasputin of the silver print. But, as even this limited traveling retrospective (40 prints from 1974 to 1985) reveals, his stylistic progress has actually been slow and fitful, and his subject matter—an eclectic theosophy with blaring sexual overtones—has developed apace. Witkin works in series. The series have titles such as “Contemporary Images of Christ,” 1970–74, “Evidences of Anonymous Atrocities,” 1975–77, and “Journeys of the Mask,” 1982–. He also works from preliminary drawings, one of which, a pencil sketch for the furled pose of the androgyne in Helena Fourment, 1984, is included in the show What are not included are Witkin’s more pointedly violent scenes of bodily penetration and abuse (Arm Fuck, for instance, or Testicle Stretch with the Possibility of a Crushed Face, both from 1982), presumably with the understanding that, where an unsuspecting public is concerned, enough is enough (and it was enough to garner a goodly barrage of protest letters).

Witkin’s imagery, or perhaps just his choice of models—many of them dead, including fetuses, and live ones with abnormal physiques—is pretty generally offensive. It’s meant to be, even though there’s nothing inherently wrong about his choices, much less about the natures of the models themselves. Witkin does play on his audience’s supposed capacity for shock, its incredulity (which is matched only by its gullibility for images), its manic distrust in the face of life or death, its millenarian torpor. Playing loud, and at the same time tempering his imagery with a highly artificial technique, he tests how declarative and how imaginative photography can be.

Witkin’s world view (assuming that it pertains, in fact, to “this” world) is benign, horrific, dense—a raging solipsism ultimately delirious in its associations. Since Witkin is technically ingenious, this combination is vital and practically unassailable. He is a precision worker with no letup on the surface. He calls his pictures “conditions of being,” and so they are—but so, for that matter, anything is. Ontologically, he’s working with both a stacked deck and a depleted one. If anything, it’s the exclusivity, the perpetual zeroing-in on deregulated human types and proclivities, that makes the work cumulatively less profound than it might be. A perennial catch: how to gainsay the dumb-bunny taboos of this culture without also seeming to dote on them? Witkin’s mediating conceit is to provide a looking distance—enforced by syrupy edges, multiple interior frames, and just-right, shallow studio placements—together with surfaces so emphatic and glamorous (albeit sometimes coyly loaded with connotations of past art) that the photographs’ grosser details are effectually the last things you see, so evenly does each shot burst and spread, persisting, as Witkin says, “sealed in time.”

That sealant quality, like dry ice, is fascinating for its literalness. Strained past theatricality, an event, a place, and a character exist only in the print, which is a heavy dose of managed light, tone, and emulsion; documentation is incidental. Witkin’s models are hardly themselves; they are transfigured (and occasionally traduced) by masks, hoods, hot black blotches, and cutouts from art reproductions, and otherwise festooned with drapes, straps, vegetables, endless gear. What’s missing? Most noticeably, air and life. The models are the armatures for Witkin’s professed need for symbols, and to that extent, their humanness really is traduced: they appear as functional as the writing on the wall. On them are hung the light, the stuff, the frames of grueling events, to which they fully submit. Their physical extremes—extreme corpulence, extremely hung, extremities in extremis—accede to Witkin’s bizarre and flagrant willfulness to flesh out space.

Bill Berkson