Joel-Peter Witkins next Exhibition at the Louvre in Paris next year.
It will no doubt be a fascinating show, but Tucsonans don’t have to fly across the Atlantic to see its acclaimed photographs.
The renowned photographer is currently exhibiting his work in Tucson, in the new excavations of the Etherton Gallery in Barrio Viejo.
Joel-Peter Witkin: Journeys of the Soul is a career overview of more than 50 works, including his rarely seen drawings. His lavishly staged photos honor all of humanity – the living and the dead, the saints and the sinners, the sick and the healthy and the naked beauties of every imaginable gender identity.
But quickly. The show ends next Saturday, November 27th, at the end of the day.
The show comes at the right time for both artist and gallery owner Terry Etherton. The gallery is celebrating its 40th anniversary, its recent move from downtown to the barrio, and its longstanding relationship with Witkin.
The now 82-year-old photographer has enjoyed an enormous reputation abroad for years. (“The French are crazy about him,” says Etherton.) Etherton had followed Witkin for decades and exhibited his work in the 1980s when the artist began to make a name for himself. And there have been many Witkin shows at Etherton since then.
“The inauguration of our new space with an exhibition of Witkins work is a fitting tribute to the legacy of the gallery and Joels and our longstanding friendship,” says Etherton. Today, Etherton Galley is the only Witkin representative in the United States. His other representative is in Paris.
Throughout his career, it has taken Witkin weeks or even months to create a single work. First he made drawings to plan the piece. (His little black and white sketches that hang on the show are charming.) Then he used his camera to create his complicated still life tableaus, as complicated as a film set, with large casts of nudes or animals or skeletons.
As soon as he was satisfied with a photo, he wrapped his master negative, scratched it, tore it, threw a wet handkerchief on it, made a collage, tinted it by hand, colored it with paint or encaustic wax. As a result, no two prints are alike.
The finished pictures are exceptional. Often inspired by religion and art history, Witkins pieces show compassion for the suffering and empathy towards nonconformists. Under the broken pieces, all of them gelatin silver prints, we see a man hobbling on painfully bent legs; in another the head of a dead person lies in a tray. A man missing an arm holds a skull, a memento mori that reminds us that one day we will die.
Witkin makes exquisite portraits of women, not unusual. More unusual, but he also seeks out people with non-conforming identities.
In one of his early works from 1988, “The Graces” shows three beautiful nudes. Standing in a row, they imitate the beautiful Three Graces of Greek myth. Unlike the Greek goddesses, all three of these beauties have a penis. Two also have breasts and one does not. Witkin simply honors who they are. In many ways he was ahead of his time.
One of the most magnificent tableaus mixes his interest in art history and religion.
“Waiting for de Chirico in the artist department of Purgatory” combines both traditions. It adapts paintings by the surrealist Chirico and takes them to a creepy place. Witkin manages to include Chirico’s “Mystery and Melancholy of a Street” and his famous spooky street to nowhere along with a giant Greek head and a collapsing tower. The religious part comes with the prisoners in this overcrowded purgatory; these artists are stuck here until they have repented enough for their sins.
Etherton’s own favorite is “Cupid and Centaur in the Museum of Love,” where lovers have turned into skeletons. He loves it in part for Witkin’s masterful handling of encaustic. But he admits that Witkin’s job can be challenging.
“I really wanted to open the gallery with something like this, to make a statement,” says Etherton. “This is not for everyone. They may not like the topic. But people who don’t like this work also know how good it is. ”
The Witkin Show to be the first
in the new gallery space at the convent showed how well the new location works, says Etherton.
The 1987 building, nestled between centuries-old adobe bricks, was specially designed to house art. The original owner, Bill Small, a wealthy collector and newspaper man to whom the Citizen of Tucson and for a while the Arizona Daily Star, commissioned his architect son William to create a place with many rooms for his art and plenty of storage space.
“It was brilliant by Bill,” says Etherton. “All rooms are exactly the size we need. And I’ve lived in apartments that are smaller than the huge storage space.
Etherton’s former gallery in the historic Oddfellow building on Sixth Avenue and Broadway is 3,600 square feet, more than 3,300 square feet of the monastery building. But the many rooms in the new location give Etherton a lot more wall space to hang the art.
The layout, he says, exactly meets his needs.
The journey of the soul, the currently shown exhibition, hangs in a group of accessible rooms in the front area of the gallery. And the rear rooms offer space for permanent exhibitions and smaller shows.
“We can do changing shows, great quick exhibitions.”
A wall will always have a preview of what’s next. Right now the wall holds several pictures from a show that is slated to open on December 4th. Photog Michael O’Neill will show his colorful photographs of extraordinary yogis all over the world.
Immediately behind it is a large room dedicated to large-format paintings. “Nude Descending Staircase”, a much admired work by the late James G. Davis, has already been published.
Another popular Tucson artist, Jim Waid, is showing one of his semi-abstract paintings inspired by the colors and shapes of the Sonoran Desert. Waid was a consultant and friend of Bill Small years ago and will always have a place in the painting room, says Etherton.
There’s also a huge study space, kitchen, and luckily a huge outdoor deck that allows Etherton to display sculptures for the first time. It’s already adorned with the revered desert sculptures by Fox McGrew.
And in contrast to the former building with its notorious 27 steps up, the back door here is accessible to everyone, from wheelchair users to workers with heavy boxes.
“The guys at Fed Ex are happy,” says Etherton.
Joel-Peter Witkin: Journeys of the Soul
Until November 27th Etherton Gallery, 340 S. Convent Ave.
Tuesday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Free admission; free parking on the street and behind the building