Turning a Prophet

Joel-Peter Witkin takes an unusual look at Catholic images of the sacred and profane.

In November, Joel-Peter Witkin, photographer of dead saints and severed body parts, of hermaphrodites and S&M Virgin Marys, received a letter from an Italian priest.

Instead of denunciation, the priest offered holy praise for Witkin's works. "Your photographs (both crucifixions and pictures of the most rejected people) are ... what best succeeds in getting into touch with the abyss of Christ's arcanum. Be compared with your artwork might only Francis Bacon's paintings or Picasso's 'Crucifixion after Grunewald.'

"We should pray before your photos."

Witkin doesn't always get such an exalted reaction--one Parisian critic disgusted by his pictures' truncated limbs and chopped-off heads called him a "visual serial-killer." Yet one day last week still another Catholic priest was wandering Etherton Gallery, offering nothing but admiration for the suite of Witkin's works on the wall. The pictures, part of a three-person show called Subverted Realities, are full-throttle Witkin, infused with art historical and religious references and drenched in a provocative sexuality.

An admirer of Diane Arbus, photographer of the grotesque, and of viscerally transcendent painters from Bosch to Goya to Géricault, Witkin photographs the disfigured and the maimed, the sexually ambiguous and the sexually voracious. He gleans body parts and dead babies from morgues and assembles them into still lifes reminiscent of the most grisly of Catholic relics.

Many of the show's 18 gelatin silver prints picture living humans whose polymorphous bodies have destined them for life on the margins. "Man with Dog," 1991, is a radiant young person whose perfectly formed female breasts preside over an otherwise perfect male body; his made-up face and braided hairdo would mark him as the most elegant of society señoras. The manager of a Mexico City gay bar, the man gazes unapologetically at Witkin's camera, serenely conscious of his own beauty.

Like all of Witkin's pictures, "Man with Dog" is carefully composed. An elaborate shiny dark cloth frames the nude figure, and the model himself is adorned with photographs and lace. (The work is partly an homage to Arbus's 1968 "Naked Man Being a Woman," a similar figure framed by drapes.)

Other pictures depend entirely on assemblages put together by Witkin. For "Queer Saint," 1991, the New Mexico artist made a "sculpture" of a real human head, skeleton and penis, and pierced this composed corpse's chest with arrows. It's a photographic elaboration of the countless medieval paintings of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, the beautiful youth who allowed his nude body to be pierced by arrows for love of the Savior. Witkin takes these homoerotic depictions to their logical extreme, and emphasizes the gross physicality of death.

"Poet: From a Collection of Relics and Ornaments," 1986, is nothing but death: two chopped-off feet and a skull float against a background rendered sacred with the amber glow of selenium toning. "Choice of Outfits for the Agonies of Mary," 1984, features a nude woman who's lost a breast, perhaps to cancer; around her like saintly icons are all the paraphernalia of S&M, whips, spiked shoes and pointy sticks. The work posits the sanctity of the sick, and the sacred in the profane.

Witkin, age 61, the Brooklyn-born son of a Ukrainian Jew and an Italian Catholic, himself sees these difficult works as spiritual. In Disciple & Master, a book about his photographic influences, he notes that though he admires Arbus and owes a great deal to her, he considers her a "spiritual primitive." "Only (Walker) Evans saw holiness. I don't think, I know that I will be remembered as a Christian artist. All that I represent in my work are examples of spiritual struggle--the real 'bottom-line' of life."

His childhood exposed him to the rich, sometimes morbid imagery of Catholicism--he remembers telling his grandmother he wanted to nail the Jesuses onto rosary crucifixes--and as a young man the Army set him to work photographing corpses. His academic art training steeped him in the long history of art: At Cooper Union, he got a bachelor's in sculpture, and at the University of New Mexico, his master's was in the history of photography.

One can sense the sculptor at work in the pictures that re-create complex tableaux inspired by paintings in art history. According to gallery owner Terry Etherton, these tableaux are on the order of small movies: Witkin deploys models and sets and takes weeks to put them together. "Waiting for De Chirico in the Artist's Section of Purgatory," 1994, is an ambitious re-interpretation of De Chirico's frightening paintings of oppressive spaces. But where De Chirico left his plazas empty, Wtikin fills his scene with dense symbolic imagery gleaned from centuries of art: a Greek sculpted marble head, a horse, a costumed figure from a Renaissance painting, a nude woman on a cross.

Witkin isn't content to mastermind only his scenes. He scratches his negatives, tones his prints with selenium and so completely manipulates the images in the darkroom that one critic wrote that his "darkroom process is more like drawing or modeling" than printing. One work, the elegant "Studio Berlin," 2001, is a one-of-a-kind hand-colored encaustic over a gelatin silver print; one of the more accessible pictures, its two female nudes stand on tables on conventionally beautiful poses.

But Witkin is hardly about conventional beauty. True, he forces us to appreciate the beauty, even the rightness, of bodies that have come out wrong, of babies dead too soon, of spines curved too much. He goes beyond beauty, though, into the sacred, finding the holy where others see the depraved, delivering compassion instead of condemnation. In this he is, as he says, a radically Christian artist, following through art Christ's dictum that in doing "unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."

Subverted Realities, a show of photographs by Joel-Peter Witkin and Rocky Schenck and paintings by Daniel Martin Diaz, continues through Saturday, March 17, at Etherton Gallery, 135 S. Sixth Ave. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, with extended hours until 7 p.m. on Thursdays. For more information call 624-7370.