The work of Joel-Peter Witkin stirs up an array of emotions and aptly tantalizes the eye and mind. From a sense of staggering beauty in their black and white soft-starkness (almost dream-like), to that of feeling unsettled, conflicted, and perplexed, this survey of his work is a must-see for those who know his work and those who are new to his darkly eloquent and bewitching oeuvre.
The exhibition in a West Town gallery opens with a self-portrait as a younger Witkin stares into the viewer through a black mask adorned with a white crucifix. It is an arresting image and says so much about the artist’s deep and highly personal connection with Catholicism and his ability to completely astound his audience. His piercing eyes gaze through a viewer while his upturned collar creates a poetic moment that is at once priestly and debonair. His avian-esque hair bristles under the band at the back of the mask, giving the look of a prospective lift-off into the heavens. The stucco wall behind him only heightens the contrast in the work while adding dimension and texture.
Hanging near Self-Portrait is Las Meninas, New Mexico. Here is a work that very much embodies another important theme in Witkin’s work: art history. In it, one sees a glimpse of Picasso’s Guernica and of course Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas. The history of art is another significant aspect of the artist’s passion and process, and this work is a kind of love letter to canonized works. He is deft in respectfully depicting the works he clearly respects and admires while he makes the work his own. The young girl in the center of the composition pierces the viewer just as Witkin does in his portrait as she is situated on a wire dressform with wheels. She is top-like and it gives a nod to the girl’s innocence and childlike nature even while she seems to be the queen of this domain. She has the sleeping dog leashed with a rope, further illustrating that she is the head of this dominion. Action surrounds her as she holds her ground.
Abundance, Prague is a distinct example of what many viewers see as the controversy in Witkin’s work: the use of people with disabilities. Just walking about the exhibition, one will invariably hear a multitude of reactions to the work and one of those reactions may very well be one of offense while another may be of genuine interest in his use of marginalized people and people with disabilities in the works and what he is aiming to say with them. While one may see the artist’s respect for his models in their beautiful representation in the portraits, others may find it exploitative and insensitive. Regardless of one’s view, though, it is impossible not to see the beauty in these works through Witkin’s gripping use of detail and composition in each of them.
In Abundance, a figure is positioned regally as the center of the portrait. Channeling a hedonistic call to arms, the model is the center of this universe. A basket of flowers and fruits sit atop her head and strings of pearls crown her into a sacred and regal position. Emerging from a base as if she is a living sculpture, she opens her arms to welcome the viewer into her world. The two fruits at the base act as offerings to her as the backdrop that is at once cosmic and classic gives the composition an otherworldly quality only Witkin can create.
Face of a Woman is a still-life that again beckons back to Witkin’s love of art history and perhaps in his Catholicism and a belief in an afterlife. Consider 18th century still life paintings that often pair a living creature holding vigil with the deceased. Often, cats walk amid the carcasses of fish and fowl exemplifying the idea of the cycle of life. The late 19th century trompe-l’œil works by William M. Harnett may come to mind or Jan Fyt’s Game Birds and Fruit with Dog and Parrot from 1652 when viewing Face of a Woman. A monkey engages with the death mask of a woman that sits with flowers spilling forth as if from a vase. There is a reiteration about the cycle of life that is evident in many of Witkin’s works. Sitting on a marble surface, there is again a nod to the regal, the aristocratic, to figures of great importance to the artist and to the worlds they occupy.
The exhibition closes with A Mermaid’s Tale, a work recently completed by Witkin in his New Mexico studio. The gallery has an installation of the work alongside gelatin prints, which only adds to the event of experiencing the work. Continuing with the exquisite and exalted quality within each work of the show, a mermaid sits on a rock with her mermaid infant, looking adoringly downward at its highly aware yet restful face. There is an undeniable peace here despite the violent ocean waves and capsizing ship in the distance behind them. Just like the young girl in Las Meninas and the model in Abundance, these two are holding court for a beautiful, albeit tumultuous, world. In that world, they have accessed a deep peace and acceptance of the dark behind them while offerings from the ocean sit at their feet. It becomes a throne for the mermaids and their reality of being half human and half fish also signals Witkin’s adoration of people from a myriad of lives and appearances, as he depicts their own individual beauty.
From the Studio is an essential exhibition to visit and it is perfectly curated in the new Catherine Edelman Gallery space. It includes sketches and ephemera, giving added context to this seamless exhibition. The show is on view now through July 3. Be sure to also check out the 50-minute interview with Witkin in the lower level of the gallery. The new location of Catherine Edelman Gallery is at 1637 W. Chicago Ave.