LA JOLLA — Sometimes critics deserve something equivalent to military "combat pay"--not because of physical danger, but because of psychological assaults.
Joel-Peter Witkin's photographs are not for everyone. They are the stuff of nightmares. I have even heard supporters express "regret" that they favor some of his composed and manipulated images, 40 of which are now on view in the Lynn G. Fayman Gallery at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art. Prudently, a sign advises visitors of the difficult nature of the work.
Fat women are a favorite subject, not only for their expansive nude flesh, however. We see one, in "Sanitarium" (1983), masked, sprawled in a chair and hooked up to tubes that converge in her mouth. Another, masked by what resembles a heron's beak, has an eel attached to her left breast--"Woman Breastfeeding an Eel" (1979). In still another, "Portrait of Nan" (1984), which refers to an innocuous Grant Wood portrait from 1933, a woman poses with locks of hair attached to the wall behind her like the spokes of a crown. In her gloved hands rests the fetus of a dog.
Several photographs refer to religious subjects. "Penitente" (1982) is the image of a nude man on a cross. On either side are "crucified" laboratory rhesus monkeys.
Other images have historical antecedents. One of the most popular is "Canova's Venus" (1982). The substitution of an attractive young man with genitals exposed for a reclining Paolina Borghese evinces the artist's flair for campiness rather than seriousness of purpose.
For the straightforward grotesque there is "Melvin Burkhart Human Oddity" (1985) hammering an 8-inch nail into his right nostril. He made his living for 40 years performing this act in a circus sideshow.
There are many admirers of the "painterly quality" of Witkin's photographs, which have an antique look. The artist is a recognized master of photographic composition and manipulation, including scratching the film and printing through thin tissue for diffusion and toning.
And there are many strong supporters of the artist, not least of whom is Van Deren Coke, recently retired director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's Department of Photography. He organized the exhibit and wrote a thoughtful essay for the catalogue that accompanies it.
Witkin's photographs violate, as Coke points out, middle-class canons of taste. They also reflect a contemporary popular relishing of fantastic, erotic imagery, as in numerous publications and several films including "Rosemary's Baby," "The Exorcist," "Andy Warhol's Frankenstein."
And there are significant historical antecedents, including, in literature, Dante's "Inferno" and, in painting, Hieronymus Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights." But Bosch was more inventive and Dante also wrote a "Paradiso."
Witkin's photographs are like clinical reports of the state of the contemporary soul, which looks like a spiritual Auschwitz. Whatever pleasure they give is voyeuristic shock. They are a form of perverse entertainment and fall short of art.
Other photographers have used equally if not more difficult material--New Yorker Robert Mapplethorpe, for example--in documenting human sexual experiences generally either ignored or suppressed, and George Dureau of New Orleans in portraits of the deformed and mutilated. Both artists show us beauty where we do not expect to find it and expand our understanding of the human condition.
Witkin does not. And that is his failure.
Nevertheless, the museum was courageous in bringing "Joel-Peter Witkin: Forty Photographs" here. The exhibit continues through April 5.