The photography of Joel-Peter Witkin (New York, 1939) does not go by unnoticed since his core themes of sex, pain and death are explored with great intensity and sordidness. Teeming with pornographic nudity and references to Art History, for the artist his work is a medium through which he sees and re-enacts fantasies not found in everyday life.
Witkin begins his photographic exploits aged seventeen as he decides to photograph a rabbi that declares he has seen God. From this moment on references to Jewish-Christian iconography run through his output in the form of allegories of demonic fables and representations of hell. Other determining factors that, by and large, shape his photography are his work as a combat photographer in the Vietnam War which he joins with another series of biographical episodes.
This exhibition is the most important anthological display of Witkin's oeuvre to date, and just for the occasion he has come up with a photographic version of Velázquez' Las Meninas, one of his favourite Spanish artists alongside Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró. That said, his clearest influences can be found in totemism, the root of his penchant for animal objects and sacrifices, the ancient theatre, which determines the presence of the mask in his works, and Art History, including the leading figures in painting and photography from which he constantly draws inspiration, for instance from the work of Oscar Gustave Rejlander, Henry Peach Robinson, Julia Margaret Cameron and Diane Arbus, among others.
This submersion in Witkin's work is made up of seventy-three photographs produced between 1975 and 1987, along with a four-metre crucifix, highly pertinent to the artist as it comes from a project he begins at the end of the Sixties with experiments aimed at giving photography three dimensions. It is not until 1987 that Witkin is able to create the form of a crucified figure modelled in lead in which he is able to imprint a kind of photographic skin tone. The body of the model representing this crucified figure was gestated in New Mexico after hundreds of hours and six rolls of film.
His photographs are nearly always developed from a preparatory drawing and follow the same production process: firstly, he looks to create the mis-en-scène and distribute various elements that form its composition. Once the photograph has been taken, the negative passes through a process that includes the partial alteration of the photographic plate via the scraping of the emulsion, which alters what has been photographed. It is then completed with a selenium-toned or sepia-toned print.
Although Witkin normally produces small images that barely reach forty centimetres in width, the exhibition also includes some of his larger photographs, for instance Portrait of a Dwarf (1987), Bacchus Amelius (1986), Woman on a Table (1987), Courbet in Rejlander's Pool (1985) and Journeys of the Mask: Helena Fourment (1984), Madame X (1981) and Pygmalion (1981)
This exhibition, in the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, is dedicated to Sam Wagstaff - collector, curator and benefactor of Robert Mappelthorpe and Patti Smith - whose death in January 1987 has caused Witkin to honour him here.