Joel-Peter Witkin

May 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

Joel-Peter Witkin and Andres Serrano were two of my rite of passage artists at art school. I met Witkin when I was working at RIP at Arles in 1996. He was an incredibly entertaining character with a sharp sense of humour (with a preference for dirty jokes). I think this initial personal encounter may have softened my initial reaction to his work as looking back on it now I find it very shocking. At the time I met him, Witkin had become famous for using unclaimed bodies from a Mexcian morgue in his photographs. He would include bodies or body parts in his complex studio set ups and place them at the centre of a complex and fantastical narrative, much like Classical paintings. The photographs themselves were exquisite – incredibly seductive in texture and colour. As a print and photomedia student they seem to me to have everything I coveted – the velvety texture of a mezzotint, the anger of an etching (Witkin scratches the photographic plates) and the bruised hues of tinted fibre based photographic prints.

In the context of this blog, Witkin’s photographs also have scars and wounds  – the bodies are unidentified, unclaimed and their most distinguishing feature is a great big fat autopsy scar across their body.

 I am not at all sure about the ethics of this work and as a blog which aims to work towards an notion of ethical secondary witness this images strikes me as problematic but for me as an artist who wants to use scars and wounds as a part of a visual language I need to think about it / look at it.

When I look at this image, and at the wound/scar what strikes me is how closed up an impenetrable the scar is – whereas the mouth and eyes are open. The scar is the location of the truth – the explanation, the evidence. The breathless mouth and sightless eyes can tell us nothing.

I have to look away now

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