Drawing in large part from historical themes in art, literature, religion and photography, Joel-Peter Witkin constructs fantasies around fragments of contemporary life. Often beginning with sketches and drawings, Witkin creates elaborate stages, backdrops and props before bringing his subjects into the controlled and often highly choreographed studio environments.
Witkin’s subjects are frequently from the darker side of the real world. Freaks, transsexuals, dwarfs, fetuses, cadavers and laboratory animals form the basis of Witkin’s work. The photographs in this exhibition have been completed over the past two years, since the publication of Gods of Earth and Heaven (Twelvetrees Press).
The current exhibition includes a photograph of an elaborate fabrication entitled Studio of the Painter (Courbet), Paris, 1990, in which Witkin makes illustrated references to various French painters and photographers of the last century. In another, Witkin pictorialized the myth of of “Daphne and Apollo” by a photographic hybrid that combines Bruegel, Bosch and Durer in a some lucid interpretation of Yeats’ “terrible beauty.”
In addition to Witkin’s atypical subject matter, he also processes his prints untraditionally. Scratching and drawing on the negatives, Witkin then prints through a tissue, selectively toning and bleaching the final prints, thus producing seductive images of heightened “object quality.” This welding of the image and layering of historical and religious themes lures the viewer into the picture, only to be abruptly drawn back into the reality of the present and of the real-photographic image.
Witkin’s work raises questions and comments upon many issues of contemporary culture, while at the same time challenging our ideas about the nature of the photographic medium itself.