New York

Joel-Peter Witkin

Joel-Peter Witkin’s photographs present subject matter that has long characterized the grotesque (“unnatural,” biologically impossible combinations of human, animal, and plant forms) while providing evidence of extreme physical acts and conditions. In his elaborate apocalyptic tableaux sauvages, based on paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Goya, Courbet, Seurat, Grant Wood, and others, the imaginary chimeras, cyclopes, harpies, centaurs, and manticores of old are replaced by amputees, dwarves, transsexuals, and androgynes, severed heads, hands, and feet, fetuses, animal carcasses, and an array of S/M avatars, most of which possess unusual physical characteristics. Almost all of Witkin’s photographs are antiportraits—the faces of the subjects, alive or dead, are masked or otherwise obscured—and represent the artist’s fevered attempts to transfigure the subjects through exaltation and glorification.

Hermaphrodites (in the modern medical form of preop transsexuals) are the powers, the hero/heroines of undivided truth, in Witkin’s pantheon. In his version of Canova’s Venus (Canova’s Venus, New York City, 1982), a beautiful figure with a classic profile reclines on a chaise, holding a perfect pear like a thought. Under the pear, the figure’s penis curls demurely out from beneath the white linen covers. A Venus de Milo/Justice figure (Madame X, San Francisco, 1981) is well endowed both above and below the waist, as is the artist’s Botticellian Venus in Gods of Earth and Heaven, Los Angeles, 1988; the Three Graces, in The Graces, New Mexico, 1988, are all also double sexed.

In Witkin’s attempts to endow his subjects with a redemptive grace, he at times lapses into sentimentality, pietism, and cant; as a result, the work can become laboriously decorative and meretriciously mannerist. The more overwrought and overdetermined tableaux demonstrate the worst of these excesses. Catholic both in the sense of being all-inclusive and universalizing and obsessed with expiation and atonement, this line of photographs culminates in Studio of the Painter (Courbet), Paris, 1990, in which the artist at his easel has been transformed into an inert masked figure with a hollow leg, and the innocent child viewer of his work is portrayed as a monkey brandishing a paintbrush as he turns away.

But in Witkin’s photographs over the most recent six or seven years the frantic proselytizing gives way to more subtle understandings. A new expansiveness is manifest in two works on the subject of vanity: the wry Vanity, New Mexico, 1990, and the haunting Portrait as a Vanité, New Mexico, 1994. The straightforward, relatively unadorned image of Head of a Dead Man, Mexico, 1990, retains all the horror of the more elaborate images, yet manages to bring the viewer into a less obvious and more powerful confrontation with corporeality and mortality. And in the uncanny portrait Costumed Inmate, Budapest, 1993, the tortured gaze of the inmate confronts the viewer, and the artist, with the stakes involved in using real human beings in the literalization of one’s own spiritual struggles. These later images achieve a sublimity and grace that is truly shocking, leading perhaps to a true transfiguration, that sudden emanation of radiance.

David Levi Strauss