Roger Ballen – The Uncanny Lens

Roger Ballen – The Uncanny Lens – Christophe Guye Galerie

The Uncanny Lens / La Lente Inquietante is an exhibition aimed at showcasing the photographic works of two renowned artistic figures, Joel-Peter Witkin and Roger Ballen. Both artists are known for their distinctive and unconventional approaches to black-and-white photography, the human condition, the human psyche and the grotesque. The proposed exhibition seeks to encourage an exploration of the unconscious mind through photography. Further, by presenting a selection of these works side-by side, this exhibition seeks to offer a deepened and more nuanced appreciation for these artist’s contribution to Surrealism and to the history of photography.

The reference to the ‘uncanny’ in this exhibition is two-fold: it refers to the eerie quality of the works themselves, as well as to the remarkable and strange visual relationships between these two oeuvres.

This exhibition will consist of black-and-white photographs of each of the two artists spanning decades of their careers. The images from both Joel-Peter Witkin and Roger Ballen have both been said to engage with the ‘darker’ aspects of the human condition, the human psyche and the grotesque. The works have been described as ‘provocative’, ‘unsettling’ and ‘disturbing’. But it is in the juxtaposition of their photographs that we gain a clearer understanding of each artist’s unique style as well as a deepened appreciation of Surrealistic photography.

This project reveals a profound dialogue established over the years between the two artists. In the juxtaposition of their photographs, we gain a clearer understanding of their unique aesthetic through their stylistic and iconographic references to myth and fantasy.

Witkin’s still lifes often reference pre-existing Western masterpieces and include macabre corpses and body parts, fantastical elements, and religious and mythological imagery. His photographs are planned through sketches, and pictorial approaches such as scratching negatives and printing through tissue to imbue the scenes with a quality of the dreamlike, mystical and occult. In contrast, Ballen’s distinctive visual vocabulary incorporates the use of dilapidated or discarded items, found objects and taxidermy, human mannequins and actual body parts, graphic elements such as wires and art-brut drawings, toys and domestic animals (from birds to cats, to rats).

Despite each artist's distinctive styles of expression, elements come together as surrealistic, absurd or uncanny mise-en-scenes that, in their formal harmony, venture into abstraction. Moreover, despite the geographical distance and the particular contexts of these artists (Witkin works mainly in New Mexico, USA and Ballen in Johannesburg, South Africa), one finds a striking similarity in the vocabulary of motifs and in the ways in which they are combined.