CULTURE- ART FEATURE- Shock and awe: Witkin's photographic phantasmagoria

Sometimes an artist simply needs to get out of the way of the work. That's the conclusion I reached after listening to Joel-Peter Witkin discuss his imagery during the Festival of the Photograph. Witkin's theatrically staged photographs, currently on view at Second Street Gallery in "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," are thrilling, rich in both concept and content. But when Witkin talks about his art, the discussion quickly devolves into chuckling anecdotes about sculpting dildos and creating bestial strap-ons that worked too well (!).

Granted, when it comes to stirring up controversy, Witkin's work makes Robert Mapplethorpe's sexually explicit photos and Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ"– depicting a crucifix submerged in urine– look like amateur hour. Using elements that prod viewers' squeamishness– hermaphrodites, limbless models, fetuses, phalluses, and corpse parts– Witkin constructs lyrical compositions rife with historical art and literary references. His disturbing visions often probe religio-spiritual questions about mortality and the transient nature of life. It's heady stuff beautifully and horrifically imagined. 

Which is why I found it so disconcerting to hear Witkin making crass puns and sounding like a debauched lecher. Of course, he's allowed– like any celebrity, he is, in reality, a multi-dimensional human. But Witkin's earthy outlook temporarily broke the spell of his highly refined images.

When Witkin is at his best, his photographs have the ability to transport viewers from the everyday into a contemplation of the sublime. The 22 images on display at SSG span 20 years and range from graceful, if macabre, still lifes to complex tableaux involving multiple actor/models, collage, and carefully constructed sets (where it becomes almost a game to pick out all the art historical references). The show also includes several pencil sketches that reveal how meticulously Witkin plans his compositions.

Witkin subtly ages his gelatin silver prints by scratching and mottling the black-and-white film and cropping corners or creating old-fashioned arced frames, which has the effect of imbuing his fictions with a sense of established fact. Although his tableaux are mind-boggling, some of his less complicated images are especially memorable. In the pastoral "Satiro," an armless horned man with goat legs sits beneath a tree as sheep graze in the background. But it is a dog's direct gaze at the camera that makes this classical image so persuasive.

Witkin's work is as weird and wondrous as a cabinet of curiosities– but to maintain the magic, skip the artist's talk.

 Joel-Peter Witkin's exhibition, "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," is on view at Second Street Gallery through July 26. 115 Second St. SE (in the Charlottesville City Center for the Arts). 977-7284.