Trevor Winkfield, Voyage IV (1998), acrylic on canvas, 45-1/2″ x 61″; courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery
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The painter Trevor Winkfield is, in more ways than one, an oddity. In an art world overpopulated by careerists with a gimmick and theorists with a beef, Mr. Winkfield has steadfastly pursued his art without recourse to formula or fashion. At a time when glib appropriations of popular culture permeate almost every facet of contemporary art, Mr. Winkfield transforms pop-inflected imagery into something personal and rooted. In a gallery scene renowned for its sophomoric high jinks, Mr. Winkfield’s art is endowed with a wit that is keen and dry.
His work looks nothing like the major art we’ve come to expect from the standard surveys of late twentieth-century culture. Mr. Winkfield’s pictures can, in fact, look marginal. Yet he’s one of our most distinctive painters. Which goes to prove that the margins are where the action is.
Walking into an exhibition of Mr. Winkfield’s paintings is to enter a dotty and rambunctious cosmos. It is a world that is as complex as it is concentrated as it is comical. The paintings are absurd and logical, dizzying and sober, nostalgic and up-to-date. They remind us of how uncommon true artistic vision is.
In describing Mr. Winkfield’s canvases, one is tempted to dust off the cliche of “everything but the kitchen sink.” This metaphor, however,is wanting and wrong. In Mr. Winkfield’s pictures, no object or motif is superfluous. Each of the artist’s heraldic doohickeys, however transmuted, has a formal and iconographic import. There’s not a wasted moment in his paintings, even if every moment is a veritable cornucopia of flux and incident. For all I know, the artist has given the kitchen sink an indispensable place in his oeuvre.
Winkfield’s canvases are hard-edged and clean, colorful and cartoonish. They’re divided into abutting geometric planes, within which a trans-historical array of stuff rollicks and tilts. Tubes of paint, ice cream cones, brushes, fish, pipes, beakers filled with color, postcards, bubbles, books and kitsch landscapes are a few of the items featured in the artist’s absurdist dioramas.
A Winkfield canvas may resemble some kind of arcane game board; another may recall a stash of notes, photos and oddments affixed to a refrigerator door or the wall of an artist’s studio. Imagine the archetypal depictions of royalty in a deck of cards put through a slicer-dicer along with Kasimir Malevich, Yellow Submarine, children’s book illustrations, healthy dollops of Dada and Surrealism and one gets a hint of what Mr. Winkfield’s art entails. He makes precise enchantments out of cosmopolitan clutter.
Mr. Winkfield delineates his topsy-turvy compendiums with a patently emphatic touch. When he approximates the grainy texture of a newspaper photograph, it’s not only a play on the quotidian nature of everyday images, but a droll addendum to his distilled and deliberate paint handling. Mr. Winkfield orchestrates his imagery within a kaleidoscopic structure that amplifies its pictoral punning. In Ice Cream (1999), he transforms a Suprematist scaffolding into a lumbering drizzle of rain. The artist’s jokes expand geometrically and take on unexpected guises. Mr. Winkfield’s style doesn’t settle for one-liners.
Mr. Winkfield has sharpened his art by all but becoming an abstract painter. It’s evident that he’s profited from looking at classic geometric abstraction, although what Mr. Winkfield does with neo-plasticism (and color) would have given Mondrian conniptions. The recent still-life paintings are his most integrated and accomplished canvases.
This doesn’t mean that he’s immune to the occasional dud. Studio Still Life(1999) is a flat-footed cataloguing of curiosities, and Mr. Winkfield’s less complicated images feel designed rather than inhabited. But pictures likeIce Cream, Trophy (both 1999) and Still Life With Fish II (1998) hold tight without sacrificing an iota of Mr. Winkfield’s discombobulated vigor. The artist’s maturing powers as a painter have bolstered his art by forsaking bits-and-pieces specificity for the fulsomeness of an encompassing whole.
In Mr. Winkfield’s paintings we get a reflection, albeit as seen through a fun house mirror, of our own overextended epoch. Mr. Winkfield isn’t necessarily s a history painter, but who could fail to recognize the pace and fragmentation of the late 20th century in these rebus-like pictures? And who doesn’t recognize the delightfully befuddling logic Mr. Winkfield has made of it?
His elaborate tinkerings with history, culture and memory encapsulate our chaotic era while pointing forward, looking back and getting sidetracked by bizarre and revealing byways. Mr. Winkfield’s is an art of reach, optimism and cheek.
© 1999 Mario Naves
A version of this article originally appeared in the November 1, 1999 edition of The New York Observer.