Joel Peter Witkin: 8 February, 2020


Witkin’s grotesque work appears to be that of a provocateur, one who seeks to shock provoke disgust from viewers. His images often feature human and animal body parts, humans with unusual morphology such as hermaphodism, and backdrops which are not dissimilar to ones pictured in Bosch’s Hell.

Witkin, J.(1987) Las Meninas. From 12 Photographs.
Bosch, H. (1482)The Last Judgement. Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna.

While Witkin’s work has been described as “calculated madness”, Witkin employee classical elements into his work. Characters stand as if marble statues, such as in Bacchus Amelus (1986), while book piled at the figure’s feet are topped by a skull are reminiscent of momento mori. Abatemarco (2018) states that Witkin’s works “call to mind the Dutch vanitas paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries- compositions depicting objects that are symbolic of death and human transience.”  Witkin’s Las Meninas, however, appears to have similarities in composition and tonal variation to scenes from Bosch’s The Last Judgement. For example, the plane that supports the figures creates a sense of depth to the work, while the figures themselves are not fixed to perspective formed by the plane.  They appear to be flat pieces stuck to the canvas/ image. Witkin states that he sees beyond the surface of the objects in his work, and believes that, although the objects may be disfigured or dead, “my work shows the beauty of difference” (Abatemarco, 2018).

With a few exceptions, I don’t agree that Witkin is showing the beauty of difference.  Witkin’s choices of material and subject vary greatly from what might be identified as beautiful.  In Las Meninas, a skirted figure appears to be sitting on or in a hooped, dome-shaped device—the wheels are distributed on the round base in a way that suggests that the hooped seat is meant to pivot in circles, never going anywhere.  The skirted figure smiles enigmatically.  While beautifully lit and constructed, I do wonder, is this meant to shock me? 

Witkin’s use of severed body parts appears to be less about the beauty of the part itself, but more about that nearly anything can be arranged and lit in the manner of the Dutch or Italian masters and pull a viewer in, who, only after seeing the body parts, becomes repelled. Sontag (1977) states “Much of modern art is devoted to lowering the threshold of what is terrible. By getting us used to what, formerly, we could not bear to see or hear, because it was too shocking, painful, or embarrassing, art changes morals—that body of psychic custom and public sanctions that draws a vague boundary between what is emotionally and spontaneously intolerable and what is not.”

Witkin has a reputation for allowing his negatives to get scratched and damaged, which to me is akin to “aging” a wooden chest by sandpapering the sharp edges, and creating artful dings and damage by the application of carefully aimed hammer. In addition, his use of silver gelatin printing gives the images a look from a former century – which Glueck (2006) calls “19th-century horror”. I wonder if part of Witkin’s appeal is his images often appear to be aged– which can encourage the viewer to place more value in them, while also creating a feeling that, what ever these contain, they are not contemporary. If these images are from another time, they can provide the viewer with psychological distance from the subject, which makes the images easier to accept as they are not occurring in this world.

Despite the subject matter, his technique is interesting and beautifully constructed.  I am interested in applying the chiaroscuro, or cellar light to scenes incorporating contemporary objects, like toothbrushes and toilet paper, or fast food.  Witkin provides an inspiration for further exploration, as Glueck (2006) suggests “You don’t have to buy into Mr. Witkin’s Stygian visions to realize there’s a master of surrealistic photography at work.”

Abatemarco, M. (2018)  The beauty of difference: Photographer Joel-Peter Witkin. Pasatiempo. Santa Fe New Mexican. From- https://www.santafenewmexican.com/pasatiempo/art/the-beauty-of-difference-photographer-joel-peter-witkin/article_61829c74-e5de-51df-ad12-63b5d1ae46e9.html.
Bosch, H. (1482). The Last Judgement. Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna.
Glueck, G. (2006). Art in Review: Joel-Peter Witkin. The New York Times. p 37.
Sontag, S. (1977). On Photography.
Witkin, J. (1987). Las Meninas. From 12 Photographs. From: https://www.museoreinasofia.es/en/collection/artwork/meninas-self-portrait-after-velazquez


Tavormina, Paulette 10 March, 2020

Tavormina, P.(2010). Peaches and Morning Glories, After G.G.

The byline of Paulette Tavormina’s commercial website states: “This beauty all around us is fleeting, and yet can be embedded forever in a perfect moment that is the photograph”. Tavormina indicates that her work is a “personal interpretation of timeless, universal stories” in “response to the Old Masters” (2020) which she hopes that will affect others like the 17th century painters affected Tavorima.  Critics have raved about Tavormina’s work, such as this from The New York Times (2016): “At first glance, you might easily mistake one of Tavormina’s images for a Zurbarán or a work from the Dutch Golden Age of painting”

Paulette Tavormina’s still life photographic images have been described as “beautifully collected and displayed …[and] have the ability swallow you whole. They embrace the viewer in a dark, lush sense of nostalgia that is dually intimate and larger than life”(Glembocki, 2016). Tavormina’s 2015 book, Seizing Beauty, features her nature morte images inspired by 17th century European masters.  Her use of cellar light and dark backgrounds illuminate the artfully styled fruit, vegetables, flowers, insects and sea creatures. Her work mimics and can be mistaken for an oil painting. Tavormina’s images are sensuous, visually pleasing, detailed and – almost perfect. So, what’s not to love about Tavormina’s Seizing Beauty?

After creating images depicting America’s nuclear testing program in the 1950s during last term, I had a desire to focus on lighter and more relatable subject matter.  I just wanted to create pretty pictures.  I studied art history for two years in college and, like many people, was enamored with the high-angled side-lighting, deep shadows and chiaroscuro pervasive among the master painters in Europe during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Dutch painters appealed to me, especially the memento mori and vanitas styles. However, I wanted to convey that life exists right now, in this moment, which is a slight shift from the “remember you will die” refrain featured in the Dutch paintings. As I began my visual experiments, a friend recommended Paulette Tavormina’s work. 

Tavormina, P. (2010). Cabbage and Melon, After J.S.C.

Paulette Tavormina’s images in Seizing Beauty are visually arresting.  While paging through Seizing Beauty, I was simultaneously amazed and jealous (l realize that nothing is new under the sun, but I do try to be original). Tavormina’s lighting is sophisticated: She captures a full range of tones, from the very dark, to the very light without having an issue with overblown whites or flat blacks  Each individual leaf, grape and insect is equally well illuminated, an effect that is at once flattening and freshening.  Many of her images are inspired by the masters such as Spanish artists Zurbaran and Cotan; Flemish painters such as Claesz and Heda (Tavormina, 2020). Malaguzzi, writing about Tavormina’s work, states “Heda achieved a trope l’oeil effect with pictorial proficiency while in Tavormina’s work it is a natural consequence of photographic technique…[through photography] the artist turns something intended as an illusion into something real (n.d.). When is a copy of an original an addition to human culture? Is it more of the same? Roland Barthes (1975) had written “The bastard form of mass culture is humiliated repetition… always new books, new programs, new films, news items, but always the same meaning.”

Her work is voluptuous and strangely distant. Not a particle of air stirs, and butterflies hover with strangely straight wings. Fruit, perfectly placed, appears float in masses, like clouds, undamaged by the burgeoning weight of the arrangement. The New Yorker (n.d.), of Tavormina’s images, describes “Fruits, vegetables and flowers spill from their containers in an almost obscene display of abundance…Everything seems poised between voluptuousness and rot, at once gorgeous and doomed.” The irony of my desire to display life through still life is not lost on me here.  Indeed, life itself is always moving and changing, something that is not appreciable in still life.

I searched for a deeper grounding in theory or message in Tavormina’s work. What does Tavormina want the audience to experience?  Her artist statement reads “I have made in response to the Old Masters are intensely personal interpretations of timeless, universal stories. Years from now, I hope that the photographs I create will affect someone as deeply as the Old Masters’ paintings have affected me (Tavormina, n.d.). I would wonder: Will a photograph of a still life inspired by a painting outlast the original?  I begin to hold suspect her statements, like this one: “I am particularly fascinated by Zurbarán’s mysterious use of dramatic light, Garzoni’s masterful compositions and color palette, and Coorte’s unique placements of objects.” Artists have a unique opportunity to market themselves and their work through statements. The introductory essay in Seizing Beauty explains “the artist’s personal cipher is revealed within this complex and refined intellectual operation, as if by an enigmatic game, through meaningful individual touches that rightfully earn her a place in the art scene and cast it in the internal play between illusion and reality (Malaguzzi, 2016)”. Reads to me like word soup. So, what’s wrong with Tavormina’s work?  It’s visually pleasing and demonstrates a talent for food design.  Tavormina does have an opportunity to better describe her motivations and message.

Barthes, R. (1975). Image Music Text.

Glembocki, A. (2016). Mar 9 Book Review: Seizing Beauty by Paulette Tavormina. Musee: Vanguard of photography culture. Accessed: https://museemagazine.com/features/art-2/features/book-review-seizing-beauty-paulette-tavormina

Malaguzzi, S.(n.d.) Paulette Tavormina “The Oysters”. Paulette Tavormina Website: https://www.paulettetavormina.com/silvia-malaguzzinew

Malaguzzi, S. (2016). Gossamer Threads: Paulette Tavormina and the Golden-Era Still Life. Paulette Tavorima: Seizing Beauty. Monacelli Press: New York.

Tavormina, P. (n.d.) Paulette Tavormina website. Accessed:https://www.paulettetavormina.com/artist-statementnew

The New Yorker. (n.d). Goings on about town. The New Yorker. Accessed: https://www.newyorker.com/goings-on-about-town/art/allison-schulnik-2


26 May, 2020
Olivier Richon: Real Allegories

“There is something more satisfying for me with the photograph. Maybe it is due to the transformation it undergoes: I have always been amazed how a photograph does not look like the thing that is being photographed.” Olivier Richon.

If smooth waters indicate depth of a river, Richon’s simple images, such as a lemon laying in a book, belie the complexity of his intention behind the images in “Real Allegories”. The eponymous title refers to a Gustave Courbet self-portrait (Harris & Zucker, 2020). Real and allegory are literally in opposition, however, this word plays fits well for both artists work: what is being depicted is an allegory, though its existence makes it real. Example image: A large carrot lies perpendicular to the plane of the film. The image of the carrot is reflected on the shiny surface it sits upon; the back-right side of the image is dark cerulean.  What is Olivier saying? “The shift from multiplicity, a bunch of carrots, to uniqueness, a single carrot, transforms this vegetable -whose form after all isn’t totally innocent- into an emblem for realism. In the economy of science, this solitary carrot ‘pregnant with revolution’ recalls that synecdoche and metonymy are the privileged tropes of literary realism… A single, solitary carrot stands for all carrots” (Richon, 2006). There, a perfect lesson on symbolism.

Olivier Richon- from Real Allegories

In Real Allegories, Richon’s images are fresh, calm, simple and consistent. He gives his objects space and character, employs minimal props and his and lighting often emerges from single source rendering objects dimensional against subtly lit backgrounds. His work demonstrates a wry sense of humor such as the image titled “after Joseph Wright of Derby, Vesuvius”. This features a theatrically painted image of an erupting volcano in the background, while a stone plinth lies shattered in the foreground next to a velvet curtain. Viewers are inhabiting the perspective of a homeowner finding themselves experiencing a major earthquake. In the section called animals looking sideways animals are literally looking sideways (such as sheep, geese, a goat on a step). In his section called The Hunt, velvet is draped over a table, and mysteriously titled is “it is high time to know what ought to be done with the Sophist” p.115.

Olivier Richon, from Real Allegories
Amy Eilertsen. Memento vivere

These images are beautiful thoughtful and inspiring. From them I could learn to employee more space around my featured images, more subtlety- and perhaps fewer objects. I have an opportunity to continue to include bits of my sense of humor in my work because here in his work it’s delightful, and very intelligent. As I flipped through this book I see more with each turn and understand his work it’s actually hilarious. Technically I think that Richon retains light and color ads in his shadows . My shadows, such in the work above, are starkly black: while I had wanted to develop a more painterly and flattened style, the the black I used in the shadows created was quite harsh. I appreciate the subtlety of Richon’s shadowing across the backdrops. He blends dark to light in a dimensional and softer way. This effect imparts dimension and a softer flow to the light. I will continue to look to Richon for instruction and inspiration.

Harris, B. & Zucker, S. (2020). Smarthistory. Gustave Courbet, The Painters Studio: A real allegory summing up seven years of my life as an artist. https://smarthistory.org/courbet-the-artists-studio/

Kulakova, K. (2015) Artist Olivier Richon|Interview. #ViennaContemporaryMag.

Richon, O. (2006). Real Allegories. Steidl: Gottingen.


28 May 2020: Laura Letinsky

Hardly More Than Ever: Photographs 1997-2004

Laura Letinsky: Table for none?

Laura Letinsky has been exploring still life since the 1990s.  Interestingly, she states that pursued still life because of the association with the feminine- such as food preparation and eating.  Letinsky is also interested in still life because the genre is deemed ‘less important’ (Sholis, 2013).

Niepce, N. A set table. 1828.

Letinski’s imagery presented in Hardly Me Than Ever: Photographs 1997-2004 are more Niepce than Utrecht. Tables are spare, the colors are pastel, and the light glows hazily.  Unlike Niece’s 1828 image, Set Table, food and food debris are huddled somewhat haphazardly on tables or countertops in Letinsky’s work. Her images are subtle,  sublime yet easy to appreciate. Her work develops over time: In the earlier shots, Letinsky allows her props more freedom.  The food is intact, but it is clearly in a food preparation area.  These images make food look not like remnants, rather somehow independent from their surroundings. One example is Untitled #6, 1997: Four fruits are informally displayed on a white-clothed table; a loop of round cord—perhaps from a telephone- is seen on the moss-green carpet (Letinsky, 2004).

Letinsky, L. (1996). Untitled #6. – the carpet is green in the book

Letinsky’s still life is contemporary and intellectual. Still Life, by Utrecht, 1644, is a classic example of still life in a time where food was scarce images of imported exotic food demonstrated wealth. Europe had suffered many waves of the Black death over a period of hundreds of years, reducing the working population and food production.  In the early 1600s the population was starting to recover in foods were being imported from all over the world that people had never seen. Pieces like Utecht’s banquet may have been painted to demonstrate the wealth of family who commissioned it.

van Utrecht, A. (1648). Sparkling Still Life.

By contrast, Laura’s work shows us barren tables, refuse, food that is gone-off, crumbs and plates that have been licked clean. Letinsky created these images in a time when food is plentiful, in fact, so plentiful that the American waistline has grown prodigiously over the past 30 years.  If creating images of food in a time of starvation shows wealth, then showing empty plates in a time of overabundance shows– greed?

So what have I learned reviewing Laura’s work? Laura seems not to formally arrange her props; however, her compositions are well-balanced and beautiful.  I can learn that I must be engaged with my composition, but the composition does not have to be perfect-or formal. The composition should be balanced and should be interesting. When I think back to the work that I did this past term, I was going for that classical composition and food groupings to emulate images from the 1600s. I think my images, like the duck in the fridge,  or the chicken on the cookbook are interesting, and perhaps more like Letinsky’s work.

Letinsky uses color and shadow to create dimensional images. For example, there’s an image of an oval kitchen table that’s pushed up against the wall. It is covered by a white tablecloth, the light is coming from the right hand side at a fairly low angle. The table is casting a shadow to the left, and there is an apple or some other fruit at the far end of the table next to the light-colored wall. The shadow of the table creates an interesting shape– and Laura allows room for this shadow in the image. Though the table is placed more to the right side, off-center in the room, the shadow balances out the placement of the table and works beautifully. In my next series of still life, I’m going to be looking for is not only the lighting on the particular objects, but the darkness on the objects as well. I want to ensure that I have shadows that retain color, shadows that have room to breathe, and shadows that create a dimensional structure to make the image more interesting.

Letinsky, L. (2004). Hardly More Than Ever: Photographs 1997 to 2004. The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago: China.

Niepce, N. (1823-8). A set table. Heliograph.

Rijksmuseum. (1648).van Utrecht, A. Sparkling Still Life. Oil Painting.

Sholis, B. (2013). Interview with Laura Litensky. From https://aperture.org/blog/interview-with-laura-letinsky/