Subverting established order, Joel-Peter Witkin’s photographs are staged images of situations in which the boundaries between the licit and the illicit, male and female, life and death, are continually violated and broken down, leaving a condition of uncertainty and primordial fertility, in which the artist is the creative shaping force. Drawing from art history or inventing new iconographies, Witkin creates photographic tableaux that stage an apocalyptic vision in which the physically and sexually exceptional become protagonists. Extreme care is given to the tactility of the image. Witkin often intervenes with the photographic negative, scratching it, altering it, and then works on the print to create a patina that seems to transport his images back to the dawn of photography. Each of his photographs becomes like a skin that reveals a new universe, in which an encounter between the carnal and the transcendent takes place.
Blackman Rome, 1996, takes up the well-known theme of the flagellation of Christ. According to Renaissance iconography, from Piero della Francesca to Sebastiano del Piombo, the central figure leaning against the column acts as the crux of the action, defined to the sides by the movement of two jailers. In Witkin’s photograph a man of color replaces the traditional representation of the sacred figure. The reversal brings the image into the present, offering a sorrowful commentary on racial intolerance.
The Eggs of My Amnesia, 1996, stages a vision in which the elements seem to be fragments of now-obscured memories. Two hermaphroditic bodies with masked faces dominate the scene, almost like actors interpreting a story that can no longer be remembered. The background is a theater curtain that contains recognizable elements related to a circus environment, through quotations of the work of the Venetian painter Pietro Longhi. As in a play of mirrors, the photograph stages a situation in which the boundaries between reality and representation appear to be subverted.
In glorifying excess, Witkin investigates the uncomfortable territory of the imagination. “My hope,” he says, “is to not represent only the alienation of our lives, but for my work to be seen as part of the history of an uncertain and desperate era.”