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May 17 - July 31, 2008 at Jack Rutberg Fine Arts, West Hollywood

by Elenore Welles

"Rebecca Stronger", 1995,
mixed media on paper, 50 x 47".

"Lynn Simmer", 1982, graphite
on paper, 24 x 19".

"The Dresser. . .", 1991,
graphite on paper, 24 x 18".

"Vincent and Death", 1987,
charcoal and mixed media
drawing, 84 x 48".

"Jerusalem", 1987, charcoal and
mixed media drawing, 72 x 48".

Jerome Witkin is noted mainly for his large apocalyptic visions that nevertheless contain within them unsentimental facts of realism. Inspired by a high degree of social consciousness, his choice of subject matter is often the Sturm and Drang of social and political dramas. Versatile and compelling in his observations, he has been compared to the Old Masters, German Expressionists, Social Realists, and in a more contemporary vein, Lucien Freud and David Hockney.

Indeed, there is definitely a stylistic blend, but Witkin’s unique spin percolates through his personal and cultural consciousness. He was born in 1939 in Brooklyn, N.Y. to a Jewish father and a Roman Catholic mother. His childhood was rife with conflict, death and abandonment, the reason perhaps why his works tend toward empathetic identification with victims. After his father died at aged fifty, he began exploring his Jewish roots, reading extensively about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. That interest led to a twenty-three year series of Holocaust themed paintings.

Much of Witkin’s works are illusionistic, almost hallucinatory fantasies, often containing enigmatic and inscrutable elements. But his uncompromising evocations of urban isolation, as well as his neo-Baroque depictions of death, sadism and terror are not so veiled. They are philosophical admonitions that viewers must bear witness, lest they forget. Historically, they are reminiscent of some of the more scathing indictments of Goya, particularly in their unsparing disregard for viewer’s sensitivities.

Universal unrest and the psychological intensity of implied inner drama remains the prevailing mood in this survey of Witkin’s drawings, many of which are preparatory for paintings. While the complexity of his paintings tended to overwhelm, the fluidity and immediacy of the graphic medium lends itself to unsentimental journeys into individuals’ inner lives.

Witkin’s sureness of draftsmanship puts him on solid ground for evoking psychological profiles. Although the drawings display the discipline of Old Master formats, they are far from orthodox. Witkin’s observations are keen, the personalities of his subjects found in specific characteristics. In his portrayal of “Steve Grant” (1980), for instance, expressive lines convey the subject’s  introspective melancholy. His bald head, straggly hair, droopy mustache and soulful eyes are hauntingly evocative.

One of the most animated portraits is of artist R.B. Kitaj who was, for Witkin, a sort of “ancestral remembrance” ally. He shared with him the Jewish horror of the holocaust as well as a surrealist emphasis on the power of the irrational. Witkins’s lighthearted characterization of Kitaj’s inner quirkiness and outer eccentricity invites comparisons to the idiosyncratic portraits of Alice Neel and Don Bachardy.

In a series of self-portraits, Witkin’s gaze turns inward. Unflinching in his self-observation, his sunken eyes radiate a palpably brooding intensity. They remind me of Rembrandt’s late self-portraits, haunting in their incomprehensibility. It’s a psychological poignancy that translates into shock value when pushed to extremes. The heightened drama of an imposing seven foot drawing, “Vincent and Death” (1987) is testament to that. Faintly descended from the elongated figures of 16th-century Mannerism, Van Gogh is depicted in the throes of hallucination, facing death as his tortured eyes peer at a skull. It is eerily reflective of Witkin’s own self-portraits.

The staginess in his works is due in large part to an abiding interest in theatrical and cinematic processes. Paradoxically, compositions that unfold like stage tableaux create a distancing factor that works against emotional immediacy. As a consequence, when individuals are captured apart from their larger context, they carry more of a psychological charge.

Drawings of small towns that have been deserted and depressed by the closing of mills are conceivably metaphors for personal and political abandonment and betrayal. Here the drama lies in the emptiness of the street scenes. By employing a subtle blend of black and white with economy of line he reinforces the sense of isolation.

Anomie and the alienated condition of man are the crux of Witkin’s dark dramas. Deliberately arresting in their psychological pull, he does not allow for viewer indifference.