LVG 21c. #31: Dissemination…under the big black sun. Diptych 78"x150" 2012 acrylic, acrylic resin, carpenter chalk, latex, oil, wax on canvas

Joseph Winterhalter’s show “The Revolution Says:” at Clay Street Press, presents a portrait of a contemporary American society lacking political will and stifled by emotional inertia.  He presents two large paintings on canvas, a series of small sculptural paintings, a wall sculpture of hand made tiles, and some lithographic prints. When listed this way, the work sounds formal, and one might expect a certain sensual experience upon entering the gallery. This is not the case, as Winterhalter’s rigor comes from his conceptual depth not his formal transcendence. The diversity of form yet cohesive statement of the works is impressive. Winterhalter employs a visual language found in institutional architecture, military camouflage, and digital imagery to get his points across. Along side these he presents images associated with a series of extremist political movements. Slogans, images and graphics from the groups are reproduced in lithographs. Winterhalter was born just after the upheavals of the sixties in the strange social trough known as generation X. The works presented here hold a mirror up to the listlessness associated with his generation’s feelings towards politics, authority, and society.

This show is uncompromisingly political. The series of Lithographs in the show:  S.I Said, RAF Said, Weatherman Said, Revolutions Said, and The audacity of Hope present a bevy of past political movements that championed anarchy and revolution in various countries. Although Winterhalter is not endorsing their agendas specifically, he is nostalgic for their momentum. The lithographs stand like an anti establishment hall of fame along the far wall of the gallery. The Baader-Meinhoff RAF, Situationists International, and Weather Underground are included, all of which rose to prominence in the sixties just before Winterhalter was born. These prints stand as a reminder of what “taking a stand” looks like. They are bold, clear, and decisive in their visual language, in contrast to the muted colors, overall patterning and pixilated forms in the paintings.

The large paintings in the show hold a heavy uneasiness. This imbalance happens for two reasons. On the one hand it is a result of the obvious political agenda of the show in contrast to the rich surfaces of the paintings up close. This creates a sensation of muted noise like static on a television.  We are given a sense of the human presence, but only if we get past the overall super flat appearance and machine generated forms.  The paintings are formally awkward. Winterhalter’s painterly language has its roots in minimalism and the process based work that dominated sculpture and painting of the 80s and 90s.  Artists such as Agnes Martin and Frank Stella are present, as well as Anselm Kiefer, with his alchemy of materials that Winterhalter shares. The paintings at Clay Street Press utilize latex paint, waxes, resins, and other high and low craft materials resulting in a soft patina. The paintings glow like old leather or worn flooring.  This atmosphere promotes quiet and introspection. Up close the works seem to ask for meditation.  One cannot help but imagine the buffing, sanding, wiping, and coaxing that were required to create the effect. The awkward feeling is also a result of these diverse surfaces meeting the hard geometry, strong text elements, and mechanical shapes in the pieces. Winterhalter’s large-scale paintings are peculiarly close to the ubiquitous look of gymnasium floors, cafeteria walls and hospital bathrooms.

The compositions are unrelenting in their harsh geometry. They are cut into  rectangles, tiles and mechanical patterns, muffling the effect of the hard won surfaces underneath. Again a political parallel seems apt: Contemporary society’s inability to organize around a set of beliefs or feelings is a result of the iron control of our consumer culture and fear of uncertainty.

Dissemination…Under the Big Black Sun. is the largest work in the show.  It is a diptych painting on canvas measuring 78” x 150” The shape language of digital communication and Kmart wall vinyl combine with a surface that feels strangely opulent upon close inspection, like waxed cotton or distressed flooring. The German words  “anarchistische gewalttäter”or:  “perpetrators of anarchist violence” are stamped in red in the upper left hand corner of the painting. The conceptual contrast here is clear: The large worn and austere panels that comprise the ground for this statement are our contemporary political landscape: mottled, repetitive, secretive, ultimately muted and impotent. The clear hard language of the text visually clashes and negates the soft variations of the surface.

The smaller groups of works in the show, the small sculptural paintings and wall sculpture, continue the language of the soft surfaces of the large pieces without as much of the internal geometric organization. The rooms of small paintings that are 4” square each are especially gentle. The intimacy of their size and box like dimensions creates a more humble voice. However, since they are displayed alongside the larger pieces, their surfaces read as hushed and confused instead of purely atmospheric. Lit by a fluorescent bulb, the works feel strangely vulnerable and inconsequential. Both heavy in their chunkiness and light in their color schemes and air, they serve to add to the general feeling of unease the show produces.

Winterhalter has created a complete statement with this show. It is a scathing critique of contemporary society presented through a medium that is traditionally used to ask questions of the viewer, not give answers. Contemporary art can turn the tables on the role of painting.

Lithographs on assorted print making papers 30"x22" each

This leaves a clear question:

Does an artist with a political agenda need to make his or her point so clearly that the various formal mysteries of the work are lost? In Winterhalter’s show, a case can be made for his overall rigor. His show produces a feeling in the viewer that is real and intentional. Our discomfort in front of the harsh foreign language of the lithographs and ponderous muffled paintings certainly implicates us. Many artists claim this sort of political message, but it is not often that works direct the viewer so fully towards a desired feeling.  I am reminded of Jimmy Baker’s recent show at the Contemporary Arts Center where a similar political statement was intended. While Baker claimed a certain political territory, his work used it as a jumping off point for an experience that was at turns lyrical and beautiful in his large paintings. The message was present, but in front of the paintings, the viewer was interested in a new visual experience. Winterhalter’s work creates the landscape of his agenda more singularly and forcefully.  However, the work suffers formally as a result.

–Emil Robinson

One Response

  1. To the Editor:

    I am writing to express my thanks to Emil Robinson for his thoughts on, and the subsequent review of my exhibition “The Revolution Says…” at Clay Street Press, published in the April edition of AEQAI. However, I am compelled to offer a few corrections to some factual errors in the article.

    1. Titles:

    The full title of the diptych is as follows – “LVG 21c. #31: Dissemination…under the big black sun.”

    The designator “LVG 21c. #31:” should be included, as this painting is the 31st work in a larger series of paintings that began with my 2007 Weston Art Gallery exhibition “Leaving the 21st Century.” Several other titles of works mentioned in the review are incomplete, as well.

    I provided a checklist of the works in the exhibition to Emil which specified the complete and correct titles.

    2. Timeline:

    Emil stated that the revolutionary movements I’ve cited in several of the lithographs “…rose to prominence in the sixties just before Winterhalter was born.”, and earlier in the review remarked that “Winterhalter was born just after the upheavals of the sixties…”
    I was very clear with Emil when we met regarding the specific and distinct period of time that was my early childhood, namely the years 1965 to 1972. While these movements may have had their nascency prior to my birth, they coalesced, reached their apex, and contributed greatly to the upheavals in the world simultaneously with my early, formative years. To have had that period of history as the backdrop for the burgeoning awareness manifest in infancy through childhood formed the basis for – and immensely informed – the core of my later interests, continued awareness, and, by extension, my career as an artist.

    While Emil contends that visually the lithographs may serve as merely a reminder “…of what ‘taking a stand’ looks like,” it is through the accuracy specified in our conversation which considers the significance of having been born into, and of coming of age during the immediate aftermath of this specific period of time that contributes to the currency of the work. It is this accuracy that allows for the conceptual apparatus surrounding the lithographs – and the exhibition as a whole – to mark the parallels to our current situation, and to provide the soil for the latent properties in the imagery to fully bloom.

    The above are quite subtle – yet absolutely crucial – distinctions. I would expect that Emil could appreciate the rigor and conceptual depth of these distinctions.

    While there are several other minor adjustments to the article that may have been needed for accuracies sake, I believe the above points are the most critical, and required comment.

    Again, I would like to thank AEQAI, and Emil, for the coverage of the exhibition.

    Best regards,
    Joseph Winterhalter

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