New York

Joel-Peter Witkin

Pace/MacGill Gallery

Does Joel-Peter Witkin’s photograph of a headless corpse (its neck terminating in a meaty stump, its penis shrivelling into its fat stomach, its feet absurdly sporting black socks), repel you? We know that people who develop a familiarity with death can eat in the same room as a corpse and digest as happily as ever. It is illogical to say that death is intrinsically repellent; rather, we come to repel it, to say No to death. As English sociologist Geoffrey Gorer once declared, death has become the new pornography, replacing sex as society’s greatest taboo.

Witkin has long specialized in subjects to which society tends to say a resounding No: not just corpses, but sexual pariahs, circus freaks, and “physical prodigies of all kinds,” as he once put it. The generally necrotic black and white photographs in this new show employ the same elements that Witkin has combined and recombined for years: abundant art-historical references, manipulated negatives and prints, and Baroque staging and lighting. But, is it possible to reconcile the formal sophistication—and beauty—of Witkin’s photography with its “repulsive” subjects? In Still Life, Mexico, 1992, a crisp, white tablecloth emerges from a black background to proffer fruit, a fish, a roll, and a human leg (severed just below the knee). Though horrible, stringy, meaty stuff gushes out the top of the leg, and a cut on its side reveals globules of what looks like caviar, it’s a perfectly elegant still life—very deliberate, technically perfect, and utterly unsensational. Even if you want to say No to the subject matter, its rendering is so beautiful you just might say Yes.

Saying Yes to death, dismemberment, or any of the other staples in Witkin’s banquet of the bizarre is sort of like an extreme form of multiculturalism, a respect for what is drastically foreign to you, even terrifying. In John Herring, Person with AIDS, Posed as Mora with Lover and Mother, 1992, modeled after Rembrandt’s portrait of his wife Saskia as Flora, 1635, the subject stands on a fake little cloud, a nipple poking out of his elaborate bodice, his lover and mother sitting off to his left. No doubt this photograph is a radical departure from the representational modes at either end of the debate about how PWAs should be depicted: works that chronicle the debilitating effects of AIDS, it la Nicholas Nixon, or that depict PWAs as living active, “normal” lives. Both these modes seem problematic, though, in that the former reduces the person to the disease, while the latter denies the disease altogether. Witkin, on the other hand, positions himself as the husband (Rembrandt is to Saskia as Witkin is to Herring), as he who loves and cherishes regardless of sickness or health. He often claims to see himself as “loving the unloved, the damaged, the outcasts,” and such unconditional acceptance characterizes his work in general. Like Saint Francis of Assisi, who drank the pus of lepers in order to overcome his revulsion, Witkin is not a rubbernecker, an exploiter, or a pessimist, but one who says Yes to everything questionable, even to the terrible.

Keith Seward