New York

Dan Witz

Semaphore Gallery

The content in traditional academic figure painting is fundamentally determined by the narrative or symbolic references depicted in the work. The reading of such work has so consistently operated within the conformities of traditional iconography, recognizable literary or mythological situations, or common narrative form that the paintings of Dan Witz are puzzling in their seemingly significant insignificance—that is, they possess the unmistakable aura of meaning while their simplicity proclaims a void of innuendo and association. The power of these works comes not from the elusiveness of interpretation but rather from a zen of emptiness. So much meaning has been recorded in art that redundancy renders much of it meaningless. Witz manages to focus on the illusion of allusion without referring to anything beyond the paintings composition, which in these works is reduced to a bare minimum. In Tom (Little Back), 1985, as in most of the other paintings in the show, Witz depicts a segment of a naked torso, here seen from the back, against an uninflected dark background; however, this occupies only a narrow horizontal strip at the bottom of the work, the rest of which is a blank, off-white rectangle. The viewer perceives the effect of resonances that do not exist. Unlike most purveyors of shallow art, however, Witz makes no false claims of deeper meaning. The reverent gaze his paintings inspire is not a search for significance but a simulacrum of perceptual sensations that come not from the work’s hidden agenda but from the viewer’s own programmed relationship to art and artifacts.

Witz elicits faith for his null totems by combining reductive pictorial strategies with the gestures of religious art. Robert, 1986, shows another naked back, here quite large and with the muscles contracted (the effect undoubtedly of the unseen arms stretching up from the shoulders), above which is attached a simple wooden cornice along the entire upper edge of the canvas. The device of the wood molding at once emphasizes and concentrates the truncated image and transforms it into a contemporary altarpiece—although the incompleteness of the visual information renders the religious aspect of the image ambiguous. In Piedad (Piety), 1986, one of only three paintings of heads, a woman is shown covering her face with her hand, an image that seems to consist of equal parts of pain and faith.

Although (or perhaps because) Witz keeps a poker face in making these feeble icons of the human body, they mysteriously communicate something of the soul and spirit as well—whether of universal or merely private significance is impossible to say. If they are nothing more than nature morte, how far then can the simulation of faith go in substituting for the reality? When it comes to spiritual understanding, I suspect the belief far outweighs its expression as doctrine. Yet the nature of creeds, upon which all theological matters are built, dictates that the psychic essence of divine enlightenment cannot replace the didactic rhetoric of its manifesto. By these laws the art of Dan Witz is both sacred and profane.

Witz’s straightforward presentation, both technically and ideologically, spares his works from the aggravating smugness of irony. Nor can he be blamed for their ambiguity, which exists solely in the esthetic judgments we place upon them. The sacred and the profane are, after all, intangible attributes that do not describe the object so much as our feelings regarding it. There is no certainty as to what Witz felt at any given moment of painting, yet the fallacy of perception ascribes the viewer’s response to the creator. Witz’s art is so controlled that the sacred and profane are delineated only by the techniques of his craft. Witz’s Old Master manner of painting (layering translucent glazes) and his dramatic lighting effects are reminiscent of much religious painting. However, while the cropped segments of naked bodies may be shown in some sort of religious ecstasy here, they are noticeably studied and deliberately separate from any context, much like standard academic painting studies. A disruption of sensibilities occurs in the flesh tones, which are built up from cold hues rather than warm ones. Such a treatment recalls the insipid style of Bouguereau, and with it an echo of the hollow religious sentiment that today is considered so clearly inferior to the humanist glow of a Rembrandt. Although Witz’s works are not aggressive or distasteful, they are somehow offensive; yet they command our attention as elegantly attractive “masterworks.” Ultimately the spiritual and technical aspects of Witz’s art are quite difficult to deal with. As paintings, these empty shells of inspiration may offer no more than a reflection of each individual’s attitudes, and despite that, I think I believe them.

Carlo McCormick