After decades in River North, Edelman opens its first exhibition in its vibrant new West Town location. A long, spacious first floor gives way to a sleek, multipurpose lower level for public events, collection storage and a video screening room. Impressively, this inaugural exhibition of the works of photographer Joel-Peter Witkin (born 1939) has the quality and breadth of a museum show.
Witkin is notorious for shooting corpses and body parts along with people born with disabilities, amputees and transgender individuals. But it is the staging—imitating the unwittingly Goth conventions of nineteenth-century studio portraiture—that is truly grotesque. Leading off the show is “Self-Portrait”––Witkin wearing a black mask with a white crucifix between the eyes––one of the most well-known photographer’s self-portraits of our time. His most famous work, the one that launched his career, “The Kiss,” shows the two halves of a carefully bisected severed head artfully arranged. Given that Witkin himself is a twin—his brother Jerome is an important portrait painter—the piece takes on intriguing biographical meanings. Arresting discoveries include “Costumed Inmate, Budapest,” showing a somber mental patient in Renaissance garb. And genuinely astonishing are the large, ambitious setpieces like “The Raft of George W. Bush,” which references Géricault’s “Raft of the Medusa” and “Las Meninas,” a recreation of Velázquez’s painting, in which we see Witkin himself.
The exhibition provides a wealth of biographical information about Witkin, who is now eighty and suffering from the onset of dementia. A fifty-minute documentary screens in the lower level each hour in which Witkin converses with Edelman herself, who claims that he has been her favorite artist and a close friend for thirty years. But she is no uncritical fan. In the present exhibition, she has chosen not to show the most gratuitously sexual works and has displayed a great deal of supporting material beyond photographs. This includes Witkin’s journals (he is seen reading from it in a shorter video), the actual stage set—replete with painted backdrop, seashells and mermaid’s tail—from one of his last images, along with fascinating concept drawings (for sale). There is even a letter that corroborates Witkin’s unbelievable childhood story of seeing a horrific auto accident in Brooklyn involving a rolling, severed head.
The photos and documentary make it clear that Witkin is a manic stage manager constantly in search of new subjects, props and backdrops. But he emerges as an artist above all. Seeing the images in person reveals all manner of handiwork: the smudges, stains and scratches, and the blurred borders of his images are genuinely painterly. Moreover, his images burst with references to art history and, surprisingly, to his own deeply held Catholicism.
Overall, the exhibition is a must-see for all fans of photo history, for it is a virtual career retrospective. Its contributions include its interest in Witkin’s diminishing mental faculties, the discourse his work introduces for disability rights and, unexpectedly, the artist’s insistence on respect for diverse bodies. Like Witkin’s work itself, Edelman’s show doesn’t set out merely to shock. Rather, it aims to enlarge our view of the physical world in all its dark beauty. (Mark B. Pohlad)
“Joel-Peter Witkin: From the Studio” is on view through July 3 at Catherine Edelman Gallery, 1637 West Chicago.