Visual Arts

Stilled Life

An artist usually has to be stone cold dead before his work is ever shown in the Musée du Louvre in Paris. Photographer Joel-Peter Witkin, however, has managed to escape the bureaucratic guillotine and now stands among the handful of living artists whose work has been deemed important enough to actually have been shown in that holy French bastion of Western culture.

The irony of this is not lost on those familiar with Witkin's compositionally overwrought and lushly printed photographs. Twenty-eight of them, all from the private collection of local art collector Stéphane Janssen, are on display at ASU Art Museum behind an enormous white façade that warns in incontestable type: "This exhibition contains explicit and violent images that are not appropriate for young people and others for whom such content may be offensive."

What's truly ironic about the artist being shown in the Louvre while he's still alive is that Joel-Peter Witkin has spent a considerable chunk of his life creating rococo photographic tableaux in luminescent black and white which often feature artfully arranged human body parts from very deceased people. He also specializes in horrifying, yet eerily beautiful mises en scène starring the misshapen, malformed, deformed and depraved, not to mention the sexually deviant, ambiguous and perverse, and other sundry misérables.

It is not work that will be much appreciated by the faint-hearted or easily queasy. But it is incontestably mesmerizing work that upends our preconceived notions of beauty, sexuality, morality and death, work that is already a recognized part of recent art history and fully completes the continuum of figurative representation.

However, at the risk of being labeled a pin-wielding putz puncturing the balloon of the viewer's overactive imagination, I have to dispel a commonly held public perception about Witkin. The equally revered and reviled artist-photographer -- who was in town to sit as a panelist for ASU's recent "Ethics and the Arts" conference -- is actually the complete antithesis of the antichrist.

Yes, even though televangelist Pat Robertson long ago dubbed him a Satanist, acolytes of the contemporary art world's purported enfant terrible might be disappointed to discover that there's no devil worshipper, no blood-quaffing diabolist in a black satin cape behind the Bosch-like vision that permeates Witkin's work. In fact, the mysterious man behind the curtain enjoys cracking jokes with the delivery of a Borscht Belt vaudevillian. And the same guy who uses death, deformity and debauchery instead of pigments to create unforgettable images is a person who is as comfortable in church as he is in the demimonde of leather fetishists and morgue slabs.

By his own admission, Joel-Peter Witkin is a Christian who regularly attends Mass and receives communion, albeit one who has an unquenchable interest in the vagaries of the world, the flesh and the devil. The progeny of an Italian Catholic mother and Eastern European Jewish father who divorced when the artist was very young, the Brooklyn-born Witkin was raised as a Catholic by his mother and Italian-speaking grandmother and went to Catholic grammar school. Early exposure to the often violent visual legacy of Catholicism, replete with impaled and arrow-pierced saints and baroque, blood-gushing effigies of Christ suffering and crucified, must have made an indelible imprint on Witkin, since such liturgically inspired gruesomeness suffuses his artwork.

Witkin's stylistic sleight of hand can evoke the feeling of timeworn Victorian daguerreotypes, painterly 18th-century Dutch still lifes, glamorous 1940s movie studio star shots or obsessional Renaissance portraits of prissy clerics and tortured, heaven-bound martyrs -- sometimes simultaneously. At the very least, his aesthetic heritage has left the artist with that fear of empty spaces so characteristic of centuries-old Church art.

"My elaborately constructed images are a product of a sacred, essentially moralistic Messianic vision," Witkin pontificated to a standing-room-only lecture audience at ASU last year. "All my images operate in kind of a seething nether region, a zone between life and death where the gyro regulating notions of morality and established values are held within the failure of my own soul. . . . I make powerful images which I hope will somehow help to define our time. I'm Christian, making moral images in basically an agnostic universe; the work is about the splendor and misery of being in life."

On a less lofty note, the artist, who did a stint as an Army photographer in Vietnam, explained that he had seen a lot of suffering and death in the military, which also profoundly affected his artistic vision. His experiences, he said, seem to compel him to convert his emotional response to what he's witnessed into a physical form. "One definition of art is to have the courage to visualize your most personal emotional needs without compromise," he noted.

In a recent one-on-one interview, Witkin quietly adds that he's always "wanted to create an entire vision based on my [emotional] need, which I think is the human need. Christ is basically my life. You've got to put yourself somewhere and you have to draw the line.

"I knew Robert Mapplethorpe for years in New York," he goes on. "We kind of had similar backgrounds, but as Christ was my life, cock was his life. That's a belief system in itself in a society that's secular. That doesn't cut it in orthodoxy, and we're not just talking about Christianity."

Witkin scoffs at the idea that his images incorporating pieces of corpses are morbid, claiming they are about afterlife ("to me, they're very sweet, very tender and very beautiful"). Does he ever second-guess his use of human remains (which, Witkin is quick to note, is always done with official permission) to make art? The artist, who has traveled to Mexico, France and Poland in the quest for photographable parts for his complex vignettes, frankly admits he does: "I have a great battle in my conscience as far as what I am doing -- is it right? I talk with a lot of priests who are ethical moralists to get their take, [which is] if it honors God, then do it. Some of the stuff is a little gray."

The photographer makes it clear that he uses only human remains that go unclaimed by any family, and that he treats the remains with utmost respect. "If they were claimed, I could not do it," he states. "I'd go to jail -- I'd want to go to jail. The conditions have to be completely distinct and the person unknown. I pray over these people. When I finish and I know that I have something, I really feel I honor them."

Witkin, whose photographs have been the subject of a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and have been collected by major international museums, likens his work to a prayer to God, like a person who makes santos. And he flatly denies that he intentionally tries to disturb or shock people; rather, he wants to change people's views: "For some reason I'll never understand, I've always had this interest in -- not things that are dark, not things that are mean-spirited -- but [in things] that somehow bring light into some degree of confusional darkness."

After seeing Witkin's show at ASU, I began to seriously examine why I've been so magnetically attracted to his work since I first stumbled across it in 1985. After considerable thought, I finally realized that Joel-Peter Witkin, even in his kinkiest and most repellent work, photographs the human soul, as well as the life of the animating spirit that continues eternally after the human heart ceases to beat. "Joel-Peter Witkin: Photographs"