Continuing to draw in large part from historical themes in art, literature and religion, Joel-Peter Witkin constructs narratives and fantasies around fragments of contemporary culture. Creating detailed and elaborate settings for his models, Witkin transforms the unusual and sometimes grotesque into a brazen personal vision of the sublime.
While Witkin’s subject matter has frequently been gleaned from a darker side of the real world, his most recent pictures show a more mature artist at work. Still working with skeletons, cadavers and individuals who may have one time been labeled “freaks,” the current exhibition evidences a more direct approach to his subjects, and a refined ability to weave a pictorialist tale.
Still Life, Marseilles, 1992, is a reinterpretation of Dutch vanitas painting in which Witkin employs a severed head as a flower vase. In Three Kinds of Women, Mexico, 1992, the artist directly references Seurat’s Les Poseurs, while making an entirely Latin translation. He has replaced Seurat’s La Grande Jatte with a pseudo Rivera mural; Seurat’s drawing studies with Mexican retablos, and the three French models with less modest Latin women. Satiro, Mexico, 1992 is a rare instance in which Witkin photographed outside the studio walls. Here Witkin photographs an armless dwarf accompanied by his faithful canine companion in a bucolic setting beneath a tree, the satyr’s magnificent goat-like thighs dominating the picture. In virtually all of his pictures Witkin gives us glimpses of the unknown as he has “seen” it. He is neither a stylist nor a modernist. Witkin connects with the past both in manners and philosophy to create a new iconography that relates to contemporary social behavior and the need he sees for revitalized spiritual content in art.