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ART REVIEW : Witkin's Making Traditional Narrative Painting Relevant

February 07, 1995|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

Big museums do great things but they are not the optimum hunting ground for offbeat exhibitions or unexpected originality. The best place in town for that at the moment is the modest Laband Art Gallery at Loyola Marymount University and the Jack Rutberg Gallery. The pairing is itself an offbeat, geographically awkward mixture of public and private venues but, according to LMU gallery director Gordon Fuglie, it has no significance beyond a shared enthusiasm for a sidewinder talent.

The exhibition in question is titled "Jerome Witkin: A Heroic Painter for a Diminished Age." Self-congratulatory as that sounds, the show lives up to its billing. Witkin, 55, teaches at Syracuse University. Despite a solid record of exhibitions, he's never gained a national reputation. This is his first showing in Los Angeles.

One look at the work reveals why. He's a member of the art world equivalent of a loyal opposition party that's been out of power for 40 years. If this sounds familiar, don't worry. If his counterparts in Washington sound to some like they're out to erase humanity from the face of culture, Witkin is out to put it back. In short, he's a figurative artist.

His major modern aesthetic ancestors are two. New York Social Realists like Ben Shahn are cross-bred with German Expressionists like Otto Dix. The resulting hybrid is as aggressively intense as it is openly heartfelt. Finally, hovering over the whole crowd like Olympian deities are such Old Masters as Rembrandt and Caravaggio. Anybody who's been through art school knows this is a recipe for schmaltz and delusions of grandeur.

The exhibition is accompanied by an artistic biography of Witkin. Written by Sherry Chayat, who teaches with Witkin and writes criticism for the Syracuse Herald American, it's titled "Life Lessons: The Art of Jerome Witkin" and has an introduction by San Francisco Chronicle critic Kenneth Baker.

It appears to convey even worse prospects for the success of Witkin's art. We learn that Witkin grew up in Brooklyn and Queens in an intensely dysfunctional family that was half Catholic and half Jewish. The last words the mainly absent father said to his son were, "Go to hell." Witkin was an artistic virtuoso from boyhood. In his kinder moments the old man called him "Michelangelo Witkin." He was also the identical twin of a quieter brother who at first showed no artistic talent and then outstripped his wunderkind sibling like a Porsche passing a Mustang, becoming the much better-known photographer Joel Peter Witkin.

For a fledgling artist all of this is bad news. Virtuosity counts against you in modern art schools. If the kid's got talent, what's to teach him? If you've got a famous brother, forget it. No Diego Giacometti ever lived up to Alberto. Jacques Villon couldn't overtake Marcel Duchamp and they were only half-brothers. If you're a twin, everyone will think you're him. Somehow Witkin turned all these bad prospects around. And time, at last, is on his side. Modernism is on a generational fade. Conceptualism has tried to save it by reintroducing narrative but it's done in such cryptic accents nobody can read it but the in-group.

None of that for Witkin. "Division Street" is a big three-panel painting. The first image shows a man walking out of a tawdry tenement, suitcase packed while Mom and Junior sit by. Then there is a barrage of greasy crockery thrown at the departing man and finally Mom looking anguished and angry, leaning against the closed door.

*

The work is as universal as "Death of a Salesman" and just as dramatic. Witkin has taught himself to narrate like film. He creates a cinematic sense of movement with panels that size differently like pan shots or zooms. He uses Abstract Expressionist brushwork on depicted objects to make them dynamic. He uses the kitsch edge of his illustrative virtuosity for a touch of irony.

He's found a way to imply stories using pictorial terms. Once you've got thematic clarity you have moral ground to stand on. Where brother Joel's art identifies with the power of evil, Jerome attacks it in all forms.

He goes for big themes. "Death as an Usher, Berlin 1933" finds a blond girl fleeing from the scene of a Gestapo murder of a Jew. She seeks sanctuary in a theater. Her corpse is dragged off by a sheep. Hitler is the usher. Witkin is as creepy as Francis Bacon, as unsettling as Eric Fischl and miles ahead in making traditional narrative art new and relevant.

"A Jesus for Our Time" is a five-panel odyssey about a loser-evangelist in a white suit who goes to Beirut to convert the infidel, is traumatized by a car-bombing and saved by a nurse. He winds up in a flophouse. Witkin deftly couches larger questions in private accents. That's good theater and a wonderful way to avoid cant.

At his best Witkin deftly skirts the pitfalls of his choices. When you know the story, "American Crime" is a paranoia-tinged fantasy about the Kennedy assassination. When you don't it's a haunting, obsessive rumination on innocence and guilt.

It's a moving exhibition offering a breakthrough in post-Cold-War art.

* Loyola Marymount University, Loyola Boulevard at 80th Street. Through Feb. 25. Closed Sunday through Tuesday. (310) 338-2880. Jack Rutberg Fine Arts, 376 N. La Brea Ave. Through March 4. Closed Mondays. (213) 938-5222.

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