Sunday, January 22, 2017

A Joel-Peter Witkin Retrospective at A Gallery for Fine Photography

When he was a small child in Brooklyn, he heard a loud crash and a ball-like object came rolling down the street toward him. When he reached for it, he saw it was a girl's severed head, and then someone yanked him away. Joel-Peter Witkin's now famous proclivity for morbidity blossomed a few years later with his photos of Coney Island freak shows, and he's been art photography's incorrigible goth rocker ever since. Now in his seventies, he seems like the academic he was at the University of New Mexico, but his beautifully produced photographs can be gag-inducingly gross. For instance, Man Without a Head depicts a flabby naked guy slouched in a chair as if waiting for a medical exam, but he only has a bloody stump where his head should be. It gets even worse when you realize he doesn't do digital; all those body parts and bodies are real, products of the lax laws in places like Mexico and Poland. Man with Dog, Mexico City, below left, is somewhat more hopeful, a view of a nude transsexual who—from the waist up—looks like Frida Kahlo. Posed with her cute chihuahua she exudes gracious charm, but the tone, while elegant, still says “freak show.”

Ironically, beauty and mystery are things he does well when he's not being gratuitously gross. In Imperfect Thirst, top, an old master looking nude wearing a barracuda on her head suggests the visionary epiphanies of a newly discovered saint thanks to the glowy northern renaissance lighting and rapturously mystical, if surreal, Hieronymus Bosch aura. As for the fish, she wears it well, and fish do have Biblical resonance, after all. Beauty is a theme in Anna Akhmatova, Paris, France, above, a still life tableau with an armless miniature statue of Venus, some grapes, flowers and a clock ensconced in someone's well-formed fingers that are, unfortunately, attached to a severed arm. Witkin is great at what he does, but in an age when the freaky shock jock excesses of Quentin Tarantino's movies and Donald Trump's tweets have inspired national revulsion, his timing may be less than ideal. ~Bookhardt / The World Is Not Enough: Joel-Peter Witkin Photography Retrospective, Through March 10, A Gallery For Fine Photography, 241 Chartres St., 568-1313.