In 2010, I published my first book, The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art. In it, I analyze the artworks of contemporary disabled artists, many of which are self-portraits and performance, in comparison with images of disabled bodies by non-disabled, contemporary artists. I also place such contemporary work in comparison with images from the history of body displays in art and visual culture, such as fine art painting, medical photographs, freakshow displays, documentary photographs, and popular culture. I was very proud when the book was called the first to cross the disciplines of art history with disability studies and am happy that it has been adopted as required reading for courses on a variety of subjects related to visual culture, disability studies, and cultural studies.
The book overlaps with subjects of many of my online courses at UNCG. In it, I discuss the work of Frida Kahlo, which, although it precedes the time period on which the book focuses, set much precedence for the self-portrait and performative work of contemporary disabled, as well as many non-disabled, women artists. We discuss such work in my online Art 100 course in a unit about feminist art and notions of arts and crafts. Much of the artwork I analyze in my book is photography, which relates directly to my BLS course: Photography: Contexts and Illusions. I also discuss performance, which is a major subject of my BLS course: Representing Women, as well as The Art of Life. The Art of Life course focuses on the intersections between art and everyday life in a variety of ways, which is also a theme of this book. In all three of these BLS classes, we debate the implications of self-display on the part of artists. I delivered a talk about my book for the art department of UNCG in Fall of 2010 and again at the Multicultural Resource Center in Fall of 2012. At both meetings I received a lot of interested feedback and compelling questions, as well as generous praise. I am interested in teaching an online course centered on the subjects of my book in the future.
The subject matter of this book has proved to be personal to me in more ways than one, and in some ways unexpected. I have been physically disabled since birth, involved in studying and making art since childhood, and interested in bridging these subjects in my teaching and writing as an academic professional. And there is more. While researching the beginnings of this book in New York City in the Fall of 2004, I visited the Ricco Maresca Gallery for a Joel-Peter Witkin exhibit (examples of Witkin’s work may be viewed at the Catherine Edelman Gallery and the Etherton Gallery).
I viewed the gallery and met the photography curator, Sarah Hasted, who was as enthusiastic about Witkin’s controversial work as I was and was also a personal friend of his. She thought that because of my interest in his work, knowledge of art history, experiences (personal and scholarly) with disability, and, above all, because of my body, Joel and I should meet and collaborate on a photograph. I was eager to serve as his model. I felt that while arguing that self-display for disabled people, as well as other individuals, can be a liberating personal and political act, I felt that I should have the experience, or in other words, I should put my body where my mouth was. After much correspondence and many sketches later, in the Spring of 2007, I traveled to Albuquerque, NM to meet him and to become a performing agent in one of his tableaux.
I wrote about my many experiences in my journal and later in my book. The long weekend is now a blur, but I recall specific details: visiting with Witkin’s horses and dogs earlier on the day of the shoot; befriending his wife, Barbara; taking off my prosthesis and my clothes, yet feeling no embarrassment; being painted white to replicate the color of marble sculpture; and posing beside another nude model for different shots. Covered in body paint, I almost felt costumed, and as time passed and I posed with other models and in front of photography professionals, I felt less self-conscious. Being posed as an eye catching detail in the photograph, I felt picturesque. I remember how Witkin would become animated: “That’s it!” he’d exclaim, with almost orgasmic excitement. Yet it was all business for him. He was creating his work, which was the source of his fiery pleasure, and we were actors playing roles.
The resulting photograph is titled Retablo (New Mexico) (2007), referencing Latin American, Catholic folk art traditions (and, for me, many self-portraits by Frida Kahlo). The image was conceived when Witkin saw a retablo image featuring two lesbians embracing, wearing only thongs, and posing above the following retablo prayer:
San Sebastian, I offer you this retablo because Veronica agreed to come live with me. We are thankful to you for granting us this happiness without having to hide from society to have our relationship. Sylvia M. (translation)
Witkin’s photograph also contains this prayer and, of course, fabulist imagery. It is based on this and other similar retablos, printed in France, of homosexuals giving thanks to God and to saints for graces received in their lives. In Witkin’s version, Duccio’s Christ resists Lucifer’s temptations after viewing the future of the world, which includes the tragedy of 9/11. Witkin’s composition features a triumphant female nude figure as Vernocia, displaying her corporeal glory and gazing down at her lover, Sylvia, a seated nude figure (me), beside her. We are staged on a pedestal covered in flowing drapery and in front of an elaborate backdrop, which includes a photograph of the same model in a characteristic St Sebastian pose and a painted, shadowed, and winged form confronting a hand of salvation. An iconographic reminder of death and a warning symbol of righteousness, a skeleton, lounges comically on the left side of the scene. I cannot logically explain the photograph, as it defies a central narrative. It is far more sensory than sensible. I have my back to the camera and am seated on my two shorted legs (one congenitally amputated above the knee and one below), as I extend my “deformed,” or here fabulist/fabulous arms. The female figures are opposing in the positions – one flaunting the front of her nude body, the other much smaller and flaunting her back. The two bodies complement one another and complete a disfigured, heavenly narrative. Witkin said he especially, aesthetically admired my back, which inspired the pose. This seated figure that is me is magical and all-powerful; as viewers stare at my back, I stare back. Like the other models in my book, I perform for my readers/viewers. Life becomes art. The photograph epitomizes the Art of Life for me.
Today, a print of the photograph hangs in my living room, while another image of Witkin’s graces the cover of my book, I refer to the photographer as Joel, and Paul, my companion on the trip who served as Joel’s assistant, is now my husband.