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A Closer Look -- Heaven or Hell

Heaven or Hell (Enfer Ou Ciel) -- Joel-Peter Witkin
I have looked on the work of Joel-Peter Witkin for years with the same feelings of wonderment as I think many other viewers feel. His images inspire awe in some, disgust in others or sometimes both simultaneously. Years ago, I was privileged to see Witkin’s work at the New Mexico Museum of Art (formerly New Mexico Museum of Fine Arts) and I recall how the curator chose to include thumbnail images on the labels of the works that inspired the artist to create that particular piece. Two that stuck with me are Witkin’s staging of the image after Velazquez’s Las Meninas (Maids of Honor) and after Theodore Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa. Both were quite literal translations, looking quite similar to the original, but with Witkin’s adding his elements in the staging. Witkin draws on art history, philosophy, literature, religion, mythology, among other fields to build his images. Below the surface, beyond the initial and superficial shock, there are deep connections to many of the intellectual and spiritual aspects of humanity. Witkin has layered the image not only in the physical depth of the multi-dimensional tableaux, but in the personal multiple meanings of the creation and the piece’s historical or cultural context. His work follows a long line of artists dealing with the intersection of religion, nudity and death in art. With his recent publication Heaven or Hell (Enfer Ou Ciel), one of three recently published on his work, the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) uses many of the prints in their collection to show the long history of these themes in the history of printmaking and how Witkin’s work has directly drawn upon some these artists’ works. This publication further establishes Witkin’s place in the history of art.

Heaven or Hell (Enfer Ou Ciel) -- Joel-Peter Witkin
First, the book is an exhibition catalogue, but secondly and more importantly, it is a scholarly exploration of Witkin’s oeuvre. A daring exhibition from the start, the curators have defined their choices and why they have put Witkin’s work in the context of their print collection. The exhibition gave them the opportunity to dust off some of the fine prints that would otherwise not be seen by a wider audience and allowed them to explore the multitude of themes within Witkin’s work as it relates to their collection. In the highly academic and beautifully written 11 page opening essay Through A Glass, Darkly, curator Anne Biroleau speaks about dandyism relating the featured artist’s work with the ideas and/or personalities of Oscar Wilde, Kierkegaard and Baudelaire. She follows by exploring Witkin’s use of the human body in reference to a few of the plates shown, “[b]ecause there is no obscenity in their denuding, they are clothed in a garment stitched from glorious sexuality and innocence and are empowered with humanity.” (32). She finishes by referencing how many of Witkin’s photos include what she calls “the missing image of a hidden God.” (37).

Heaven or Hell (Enfer Ou Ciel) -- Joel-Peter Witkin
Heaven or Hell (Enfer Ou Ciel) -- Joel-Peter Witkin
Other writers further explore some of the themes that Biroleau introduces: Jérôme Cottin, the religions themes in The Art of A Postmodern Catholic and Séverine Lepape, the use of the corpus in art and specifically printmaking in Mystic Bodies, Erotic Bodies: In Series. The main section of book plates begins and ends with the brief words of Witkin. The plates contain images of Max Beckmann, Pablo Picasso, Francisco de Goya, Rembrandt, Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, among many others. The text pages and Witkin’s plates are printed on white paper while the remaining plates are shown on a chocolate-like color creating a striated text block and an easy way to reference the different materials. Along with the essays, this publication contains many reference materials including a biography of Witkin and all the writers, a plate listing, selected bibliography, a list of Witkin’s main solo exhibitions and notes on the essays.

Heaven or Hell (Enfer Ou Ciel) -- Joel-Peter Witkin
 Witkin’s images are appealing, as Biroleau says each image is “as sticky as flypaper, it catches the eye. Although the eye is initially attracted by the central subject, the complexity of the arrangement leads it from detail to detail then, saturated with signs, it comes back to the centre and studies it in the light of its new knowledge.” (35) Many books have represented Witkin’s images, the books published on his work number in the 20s. This exhibition and resulting catalogue take a look at Witkin’s complex seductive oeuvre that has spanned 50 years and explores its multiple themes and, questionably, adds more to his work and its place in the history of art.  -- Melanie McWhorter

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