Joel-Peter Witkin Explores the Mysterious “ShadowLands” of Life Through Art
Photo: Night in a Small Town, New Mexico, 2007, toned gelatin silver print.
American artist Joel-Peter Witkin’s photographs transport you into another world, one drawn of imagination that confronts our assumptions about the nature of beauty and the grotesque. Described as the heir to a dark romanticism, Joel-Peter Witkin presents his “history of conscience” through painstakingly constructed tableaux that fuses elements of art history, myth, religious iconography and pop culture. Whether classically beautiful women or figures that exist on the margins of life, such as transsexuals, sadomasochists, dwarfs, amputees, and androgynes, Witkin’s work embraces each subject as the embodiment of grace, beauty, and virtue.
Witkin creates few photographs and makes a limited number of prints. In the darkroom, he takes tremendous risks with his master negative, scraping, tearing, sanding, writing, and scratching its surface. He also works his prints, finishing them with paint, retouching, cutting, collaging and coating them with encaustic. A selection of Witkin’s work is currently on view in ShadowLands at Etherton Gallery, Tucson, through November 12, 2016. The exhibition also includes the works of Roger Ballen and Alice Leora Briggs, who also explore the dark corners of our imagination. Witkin speaks with Crave Online about his work.
There are so many layers to your work, so I will begin with the surface of things. I have an overwhelming and visceral response to the tension inherent in your exploration of the beauty of the grotesque. What do you find most compelling about the dark and difficult aspects of life (and death), and how have these aspects become central motifs for discovery of beauty and virtue in your work?
Joel-Peter Witkin: My work is strong because it honors the depth of my longing for Truth. These images don’t offer answers to the bottomless questions I picture. But at least they say, I’ve been there. I’ve tried to open the door.
Much of what drives the human race is the fear of death. We don’t want to lose our lives because we are afraid of not being. Life and death are mutual conditions of human life and nature. Our attachments to life and possessions and to all things considered healthy and beautiful are a denial of our not being. Yet we are naturally attracted to beauty and wonder, to goodness and healing, to light and not the darkness. All of us are both beauty and the grotesque, mentally and physically.
If we see primarily with our souls and not with our eyes and our cultural conditioning, we all would be more realized.
For the better part of my life, I’ve been deeply Romantic, drawn to the devastation and destruction that underlies the sublime. I see this frequently in art, as in life, and liken it to the “death instinct” that Freud theorized. Do you see the sublime as an aspect of modern life, or do you think it goes deeper, into the very heart of the human condition?
I’m a card carrying Romantic! For me that means being heroically unselfish. It’s living in discovery, living for goodness and love. I cannot believe, as you do, “that the romantic is drawn to devastation and destruction.” That’s what Totalitarians believe in. Ask Putin that same question!
No, the sublime is the discovery of infinite goodness in all things.
In my case, I begin that search into splendor and misery. I don’t believe the chap in my photograph “who yearns to position himself in order to have his face crushed by heavy weights”, is insane. Perhaps what he’s trying to accomplish is his spiritual deliverance! A crude and destructive concept perhaps — but how different is his need — from the lines of saints?
I saw a quote where you stated, “The themes of my work are: what constitutes human existence, history, human beauty. The work has at its very core the evidence of conscience presented as photographic metaphor.” Could you speak about why you chose the photograph as the space to explore conscience: What is about the medium that allows these possibilities?
I believe aesthetic ability is a providential gift. I’ve always believed that I was an artist from the egg and that my medium was to make photographs. That I could create emotion through a machine. But what consumates that ability is what is reflected in individual consciousness. What motivates that desire is conscience.
Photography is the newest medium of art because anyone can pick up a camera and say “I have stopped time. I have recorded a recognizable factor of life” That happens. The result could even be a photographic masterpiece. But it wasn’t created from that person’s heart, mind and soul. Something new, gracious and ineffable can at times be the result. That is what I live for.
All photos: ©Joel-Peter Witkin, courtesy Etherton Gallery, Tucson.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.