Sunday, March 4, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, March 4, 2001

Art Review
Witkin photographs make a provocative show

By Virginia Wageman
Advertiser Art Critic

The exhibition of Joel-Peter Witkin photographs at the Contemporary Museum is arguably the most intellectually challenging and provocative show to hit Honolulu in the last few years.

The work of Joel-Peter Witkin will be on display at The Contemporary Museum through April 8. Visitors are invited to use wall notecards to post their comments about the show.

Honolulu Academy of Arts

At the same time, it is a shocking, even repellent, show, with images of cadavers borrowed from morgues and what might be considered freakish people, often without limbs or grotesquely overweight.

Witkin, a deeply religious person, uses photography to explore the aesthetic and spiritual aspects of life. He finds the world a morally abject place, though not without hope of redemption, and sets out to corroborate this view, creating elaborate tableaux that can take many weeks to set up, and then photographing them.

Bringing form to his ideas with preliminary sketches (many of which are exhibited), he gathers various props, paints scenic backdrops and finds models to act the parts. Often the idea for a photograph is borrowed from a historical source. In many instances, small reproductions of these visual sources are hung in the gallery next to the photograph, providing a helpful clue to Witkin’s intentions.

Witkin’s art-historical sources are many and diverse: van Eyck, Cranach, Titian, Goya, Rodin, Courbet, Muybridge, Cezanne, Picasso, Hopper, to name a few. These references serve to establish the historical validity of his themes and subjects and to emphasize the universality of the human condition.

In "Las Meniöas (Self-Portrait)," Witkin refers back to Velazquez’s famous painting "Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor)," in which the 17th-century Spanish master is shown painting a portrait of the king and queen of Spain, their 5-year-old daughter in the center of the composition, wearing a hoop skirt and surrounded by a retinue of maids.

Jean Charlot Foundation to meet

In conjunction with the exhibitions "Jose Guadalupe Posada" and "Jean Charlot," which open simultaneously today at the UH-Manoa Art Gallery, the Jean Charlot Foundation will hold its annual members’ reception at 2 p.m. March 11 in the Art Gallery courtyard.

The Charlot Foundation is a nonprofit organization that perpetuates the legacy of Jean Charlot and promotes the arts in Hawaii. For membership information, call 956-5250 or 956-2849 or e-mail.

In Witkin’s version, Velazquez’s self-portrait is replaced by an image of Witkin himself, palette in hand, his face effaced by scratchings on the negative. Witkin’s infanta is a woman with stumps for legs sitting atop a wire contraption with wheels. The king and queen and attendant figures are replaced by a monstrous form derived from a print by Miro.

Witkin’s transformation of the work of Velazquez, an artist known as a sensitive portrayer of character, will seem outrageous to many. And many will take offense at his depictions of perverse, sometimes violent, acts - and at what might seem the degradation of fellow human beings in the service of Witkin’s photographic art.

However, Witkin’s lens captures a deep admiration, even a love, for his subjects, precisely because they are without limbs or otherwise physically challenged. He has said that he feels privileged "to know the unique people who so mysteriously enter my life."

The museum warns that "this exhibition contains strong images that may be shocking to some viewers," and it has provided "Talk Back" notecards for viewers to use to write their comments about the show and post on a wall in the gallery. To date, the majority of the responses seem to be strongly favorable, though a fair number of people have expressed their personal dislike of Witkin’s work.

Helpful in understanding the historical and humane context of the photographs is a video presentation that includes excerpts from interviews with Witkin made during the last decade. Visitors to the exhibition should take the time to view the video.

A public lecture about the show will be presented by UH professor Gaye Chan at 10 a.m. March 13 at the Contemporary Museum ($10; reservations required; call 526-1322).

Virginia Wageman can be reached at

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