The new Tartt Gallery, 2017 Q St. NW, could not have opened with a show more likely to generate controversy, outrage and traffic than the photographs of Joel-Peter Witkin.
The Brooklyn-born artist, 46, was working as a headwaiter in Albuquerque when he began riding his dealer-propelled rocket into the upper reaches of the art/photography market just three years ago. Along the way, he has seared many a museum wall (including the Hirshhorn's) with his Victorian-looking photographs of leather-bound fetishists, pre-op transsexuals and obese nudes with severed heads and fetuses on their laps.
Less than two decades after Diane Arbus shocked the art world with her stark photographs of freaks, Witkin is making Arbus look like Grandma Moses.
The Arbus comparison is relevant not because Witkin's achievement in any way matches hers, but because of the vastly different ways they approach similarly "objectionable" subject matter. Arbus was one of the first art photographers to aim her camera at people you aren't supposed to stare at, and in so doing she enlarged the boundaries of the "straight" documentary style that has dominated art photography since the '50s.
Witkin, however, is either retrograde or revolutionary in this respect: He never takes a "straight" documentary photograph of anything, including his models, who are often physical and sexual aberrants. Rather, he asks them to pose in exchange for a photograph, and then goes to work creating masks and elaborate theatrical sets in which to photograph them with various props (his and theirs) in dramatic lighting. In the end, these models -- whether friends, freaks or fetuses -- all end up as anonymous players and symbols in Witkin's often nightmarish visions.
Special effects -- like drawing and scratching on the negative and chemically altering the print itself, adding areas of sepia toning -- help distance the image from the present by giving it the contrived, arty look that, for most photographers, went out with Queen Victoria.
"For me," says Witkin, "the decisive moment is when I make the print, not when I take the image." But he makes much of the fact that he does not use collage, montage or superimposed images. He made one exception in the case of his romantic image of a woman bound to a half-moon, which he calls "Woman Masturbating on the Moon." "I thought I had it all worked out in the preliminary drawing," admits Witkin, "but when I made the image, her head was in the wrong place, so I had to move it."
One senses that Witkin, in general, deals more often with exceptions than with rules, and he concurs, citing the strict Roman Catholic upbringing he received from his mother. "Because of my background, I decided to go into places I wasn't supposed to go, which I called Purgatory," says Witkin. Many of his photographs, indeed, seem to have been made in some timeless, dark closet in the lower reaches.
But art, religious and otherwise, has also been a major influence on his work and has produced many of his strongest images. Some are mildly amusing, like the transsexual posed as Rubens' wife and the elaborate reinterpretation of Grant Wood's portrait of his sister "Nan," here played out by a nude model in a T-shaped mask and flying twists of hair pinned to the wall behind. Witkin says "Nan" came about after he saw the original painting in a museum in San Francisco, and then heard two women talking about the real Nan, whom they knew. "I couldn't get over it," says Witkin. "That was where I made the connection with the potentiality of this image, and I had to do it."
He has tales to tell about all his images (he does not call them photographs), including the spellbinding "Harvest," which hangs at the entrance to the Tartt Gallery show. Inspired by the 16th-century Italian painter Arcimboldo, who created assemblages of fruits and vegetables that resembled human visages, Witkin made that connection when he found a wax model of a head and neck in a medical museum in Philadelphia.
"My wife and I found this wax model in a glass case and were told we could photograph it, but could not move it," says Witkin. "We spent four and a half hours arranging fruits and vegetables around it, surrounded by the stench of formaldehyde. I'll never forget it, because we found a great Italian restaurant on the way home."
An amiable, talkative man who wears leather on formal occasions, he has kept his Brooklyn accent and has the enormous advantage of being able to laugh at himself and the way he lives. But he also had the eye to make from a strange assemblage like the aforementioned "Harvest" a haunting, ritual image that is altogether beautiful, despite the lymph glands and muscles imperceptibly woven in among the scallions and artichokes.
He has similarly removed the stench of death from another deceptively ingratiating photograph titled "Cornucopia," centered on an autopsied German shepherd with fruits and vegetables pouring out. "Both images are metaphors of life," says Witkin. And, miraculously, they could be.
There are other unforgettable photographs (along with several forgettable ones) at Tartt, the newest and best being "The Blue Hat," featuring a small paraplegic woman -- a filmmaker -- whom Witkin met at the opening of a Whitney Biennial that included him. He subsequently posed her like a precious but powerful masked doll.
Make no mistake: This is an X-rated show, and anyone with a weak stomach and low tolerance for the dark recesses of contemporary life would do well to stay away, even though Tartt has spared us many of Witkin's grosser excesses, elevating the artist in the bargain.
The problem is that Witkin's original prints are so beguiling, so maddeningly seductive and so masterfully made that it is impossible to dismiss them as trash, or pornography, which they certainly are not. "You don't like Witkin because he makes nice pictures," says one photographer friend. "But you get sucked into his space, where he can make you feel the way he wants you to feel by playing off the reality of photography. That's a photographer's dream."
The Washington show is timely. Witkin's work has just begun a tour of museums in San Francisco, Chicago, Brooklyn, Milwaukee and La Jolla, Calif., and a book of his images (far less satisfying than the original prints) has just been published by Twelvetrees Press. The show will continue through March 15. Hours are Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 to 5.