Star-Bulletin Features

Thursday, March 22, 2001

Joel-Peter Witkin uses bodies, dead and alive,
to create his controversial photographs. This
work is "Las Meninas, New Mexico" (1987).

Hold your
stomach for
body parts

A wall is set up to collect
complaints of viewers

By Suzanne Tswei

To say the art of photographer Joel-Peter Witkin is controversial is an understatement. His surrealistic and often gruesome pictures of human bodies, sometimes cadavers from morgues, can turn your stomach.

Although no one has required medical attention from looking at the exhibit -- yet -- the internationally acclaimed artist's work at The Contemporary Museum is accompanied by a wall papered with outraged comments from viewers.

"We knew this show was going to be difficult for people, so we provided pieces of paper and the 'talk back' wall at the back of the exhibit for them to express how they feel about it," said chief curator Jay Jensen.

The museum fortified its staff and volunteer docents with an orientation before the showed opened to prepare them for the possible onslaught of negative reactions.

A disclaimer greets museum goers at the door, warning of the unpleasantness. The museum also limited access to school children and ask minors to be accompanied by their parents.

"Actually, so far we have not had any serious problems. I think only two people were so upset that they demanded their money back," Jensen said. "Frankly, we thought there might be more."

Jensen has been an admirer of Witkin's work since the artist began to gain notice in the 1980s. When he learned of a traveling exhibit organized by Santa Fe's Museum of Fine Arts, Jensen booked the show for Honolulu, knowing full well that he would have to take the heat for it.

"I don't think this show is something you can feel neutral about. People either love it or hate it," he said.

Since the show opened Feb. 16, word of mouth has brought higher attendance to the small Makiki Heights' museum, Jensen said, but no official tally is available.

"I am sure whenever there's anything that's perceived as controversial, interest is peaked. People want to come and decide for themselves. I know there's a buzz about it. It's either 'it's great, you've got to see this,' or 'god, it's awful, you've got to see this,'" he said.

The comments on the 'talk back' wall are along the same line. Of the 150 pieces of paper on the wall, about a third contain glowing praises while the rest comprise puzzled and irate reactions.

"One man's art is another mans (sic) toilet paper," one viewer wrote.

"Truly tasteless," declared another. "Why does modern art have to have 'shock' value? Classic art is universally appealing. Good art is still art and this is not art."

A few questioned the sanity of the artist, believing him to be demented or on drugs when he created the photographs. One cynical viewer thought the artist must have "a good agent" to have gotten where he is.

Others ask the basic frustrating "what is art" question.

"There is plenty of ugliness in our world if we look for it. Do we really need to display it in a museum and dignify it by calling it art and the one who created it an artist?," one wrote.

Jensen said he chose the exhibit, not to generate publicity, but because "the work is good" and "worthwhile" and should be seen.

"Not all of our shows are like this, but once in a while I think The Contemporary should show something that pushes (the public's perception of art and good taste).

"For the people who said they won't ever come back because of this one show, that's really unfortunate. They are cutting themselves from learning," Jensen said.

Witkin is one of the most important contemporary American photographers, whose work challenges the way we see and think, Jensen said.

"Yes, his work is controversial for some, but he's unique. He's working in a way not a lot of photographers are working, which is to create these elaborate tableaus. He doesn't do it the easy way. He doesn't splice anything together. Everything you see is set up before the camera," Jensen said.

Jensen describes Witkin's elaborately composed photographs as "theater in a way," like creating a giant installation with actors, live or dead.

"One thing that makes he stand out, or make him important: He is inviting the viewers to look at things and think of things that are not in our daily lives, because they are unpleasant. They are issues people don't want to face," Jensen said.

Issues like mortality, transformation, sex, desire and identity, Witkins addresses by using models that are unpleasant to look at by conventional standards -- people who are physically handicapped, disfigured or just plain dead.

"Our society does not want to confront them. He sees beauty in their spirit, beauty in their courage. I think he's trying to show us -- through his art--- that these people also have dignity.

Witkin's unusual vision and accomplished photographic techniques qualify his work as art, Jensen said. Witkin is also a learned and clever artist who draws from art history, mythology and contemporary culture for inspirations, he said.

On view

"Unpublished and Unseen": Photographs by Joel-Peter Witkin
Where: The Contemporary Museum, 2411 Makiki Heights Drive
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, through April 8
Cost: $5, $3 for seniors and students, free for children 12 and under, but for this exhibit no one 17 and under is allowed without parental approval and guidance
Call: 526-1322

Do It Electric
Click for online
calendars and events.

E-mail to Features Editor

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]

© 2001 Honolulu Star-Bulletin