The fact that there are no fewer than three photographs featuring severed heads in Joel-Peter Witkin: From the Studio – The Kiss, 1982; Harvest, 1984; and Face of a Woman, 2004 – might point to the impact of one of the artist’s earliest memories. Witkin recalls walking to church on a Sunday morning, holding his mother’s hand, when they heard a collision. Three cars had crashed, and from the curb, he saw something roll toward him. It was the head of a young girl.
Witkin, of course, is well known for elaborately staged tableaux featuring dismembered body parts and societal outcasts that reference grand scenes from the art-historical canon. They’ve been described over the years as macabre, perverse, and gruesome. The exhibition at Catherine Edelman Gallery through July 3 allows a somewhat more nuanced reading, with the artist’s own words – in a number of journals displayed in a vitrine – alluding to the profound intimacy in his work. “The subject of the work is myself,” he writes.
While Witkin may not entirely avoid othering those he depicts, he is earnest about viewing himself as one of the outcasts. His Self-Portrait, 1984 – in which a model of the crucified Christ, without the cross, is affixed to the masquerade mask Witkin wears – is included in the show. Like many of his photographs, it carries the weight of his avowed Catholicism. Woman Once a Bird, 1990 – an allusion to Man Ray’s Le Violon d’Ingres– evokes the wings of an eagle, mentioned repeatedly in the Bible as a symbol of God’s protection and provision, here violently removed. Counting Lessons in Purgatory, New Mexico, 1982, meanwhile, depicts a deceased microcephalic infant seemingly suspended on a wire – presumably unbaptized, caught between heaven and hell.
“The work has, at its core, ‘moral emotion.’ The fear of death and the seeking of God,” writes Witkin. The visceral reactions his work elicits point to his mastery of the “grotesque,” that contradictory condition of the mind uniting horror and ludicrousness, reality and fantasy. The Raft of George W. Bush, NM, 2006, an allegory of the Bush administration as the great tragedy recorded in Gericault’s The Raft of Medusa, offers a near-perfect expression of that skill. And as Carson McCullers put it, “the grotesque is paralleled with the sublime.”