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A master storyteller on the threshold of great art

Jerome Witkin has not only an extraordinary talent, but the drive and imagination to go with it. He draws beautifully, paints with the assurance and verve of a master, and fashions images that grapple with and illuminate some of the most crucial and vexing issues of our time.

His huge 1979-81 triptych, ``Death as an Usher: Germany, 1933,'' depicts individual acts of Nazi brutality and murder in a format that is both startlingly real and reminiscent of some of Goya's and Munch's more symbolic and unsettling works. ``The Devil as a Tailor'' further examines some of man's diabolical inclinations by portraying Satan in the act of sewing soldiers' and political prisoners' uniforms -- as well as the yellow-starred suit of a German Jew. And in ``The Screams of Kitty Genovese,'' hum an callousness is laid bare with the depiction of two lovers only momentarily diverted by a young murder victim's desperate cries for help.

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Such themes do not, of course, guarantee art. Complex narrative paintings demand not only traditional artistic skills, but the more theatrical ones involving staging, lighting, storytelling, and character development. Fortunately for him -- and for us -- Witkin possesses all of these, plus the aptitude for carpentry required to help construct the elaborate and authentic ``stage sets'' within which he places his models, as well as the patience needed to discuss the subtleties of costume, pose, and charac terization with those who sit for him.

Dramatic evidence of the above can be found in his current one-man show at the Sherry French Gallery here. Included in this survey of work produced during the past two years are ``Division Street,'' a large triptych depicting the effects of jealousy, frustration, and rage upon a married couple; a powerful diptych focusing on the issue of moral responsibility; and several smaller but no less effective narrative paintings and portraits.

The triptych is a particularly good example of Witkin's use of comic-strip and cinematic devices to speed the action from one panel to another. It also clearly indicates how he uses color to define mood and emotional content, in this case by moving from harsh greens (to denote jealousy) in the first image to softer blue-greens and grays as the woman vents her rage by hurling dishes at the man, and as she then seethes with resentment while cleaning up the mess.

All this is presented in a style as faithful in its depictions of people and things as any to be found today. Witkin wants to make his point as clearly and unambiguously as the old masters made theirs. Not only is he unconcerned about possible accusations that he is, as a result, academic or merely illustrational; he actually welcomes the risks involved as a challenge to his ingenuity and seriousness of purpose.

Above all, he wants to be understood. Pretension and pomposity are not for him.

In his own words, ``My art is about meditations on life experiences using, during every moment of creating it, the knowledge that someone will join in with my caring abut this. . . . I believe in accessibility without confusion or barrier, and in words like tender and sharing.''

In a very real sense, Witkin's paintings are morality plays in which human dramas representing conflicts between such things as good and evil, love and hate, the creative and the destructive, are acted out. As such, they are powerful and often very moving. A few, in fact, must already be counted among the most memorable pictures of the past decade. What happens next is up to Witkin himself. He has what it takes to produce truly major art and, at mid-career, he shows every indication of being about to do

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At the Sherry French Gallery, 41 West 57 Street, through Nov. 30.

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