Jerome Witkins’ works, on display at two area galleries, offer sublime shocks to the system
By Jon Dufort
A lesser professor could settle into a rut after decades of teaching students to paint, if self-satisfaction turned a signature style into a cliché, if pet obsessions gave rise to an inscrutable private iconography, if growing eccentricity lessened accessibility by the semester.
Fortunately Jerome Witkin’s artistic skill and vision have only sharpened in his 40 years at Syracuse University, and the concurrent exhibition of his work at two SU galleries makes it clear how much can be learned from his practice.
The dozens of works exhibited in the retrospective Drawn to Paint: The Art of Jerome Witkin range from manageable sheets of paper to 300-square-foot, multipanel paintings, from current works to some pre-dating the 1970s.
The large works that form the cornerstones of this show are overwhelming, their dimension swallowing up a viewer’s entire field of vision. Component panels act like jump cuts in film, offering disjointed perspectives of the same scene in space, time and emotional state. They swamp you with detail, every surface granted a tactile depth, each square inch telling more of the story. But the stories these paintings tell are what really produce the sensory overload.
“Entering Darkness: Dorothy Wahlstrom, Nurse at Dachau, 1945” captures a nurse’s nightmarish perception of conditions at the death camp. We are shown the painfully thin limbs of those she found on the brink of starvation, the fetid conditions: filth, straw, broken glass. As the nurse moves deeper into the complex she encounters a prisoner with empty eyes. He has been reduced to an animal, screaming simians surrounding him. A blood-spattered grinning ghoul pops out of nowhere wielding two jagged steak knives. Although his own torso has been hollowed out and his spine and rib cage are exposed, the man’s expression is one of avid anticipation.
We next find the nurse photographing conditions in a tiled morgue, hands and decapitated heads stacked and categorized on shelves behind her. The fifth panel depicts the woman’s collapsing mental landscape: The skin of Hitler’s sneering face stretches into the shape of a hand that threatens to snatch the nurse from where she stands amid blazing wreckage and toppling columns. In the last panel she sits by a broken mirror, eyes downcast as a survivor walks out an empty doorway into the light.
Humanity’s capacity for cruelty is a theme that Witkin tackles again and again. On his canvases we see explicit scenes of domestic violence, sexual predation, lynching, terrorism and, of course, the torture, murder, dismemberment and dehumanization of the Holocaust. The success of these ambitious works relies more on the artist’s disciplined control of realism than on his deeply felt emotions. The accurate description of figures, the sensitive recording of their gestures and expressions, breathes life into them and we feel their pain all the more.
This collection makes it clear that imposing and monumental narrative sagas like “Entering Darkness” and “Taken” don’t spring fully formed into being but are the culmination of long study, deliberate planning and plenty of preparation. It is in the drawings where the fine points of the composition are worked out: how far the fingers will flex, where the gaze will fall, how far shadows will extend.
From scribbles in sketchbooks to richly toned conté crayon pieces that can be appreciated in their own right, drawings on display trace the evolution toward fully realized ideas. In this context it is tempt ing to regard all of the smaller work-whether it be a portrait of a local luminary or a box of figs--as preparation for something grander.
Drawn to Paint: The Art of Jerome Witkin runs through Oct. 23 at SUArt Galleries, located in the Shaffer Art Building on the main SU campus; it is open Tuesdays, Wednesday and Fridays through Sundays, 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Call 443-4097 for information.
The show also has Witkin’s works through Oct. 16 at SU’s downtown gallery, XL Projects, 307-313 S. Clinton St., open Wednesdays through Sundays, noon to 6 p.m. There will be two separate talks with Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi, abbot of the Zen Center of Syracuse and author of Life Lessons: The Art of Jerome Witkin (SU Press, 1994), on Oct. 5 at 7 p.m. and Oct. 6 at 2 p.m. Dial 442- 2542 for XL details.