Then he turned up in a panel at “To be or not to be,” the painting symposium I moderated one day at Rutgers. I liked what he had to say. And his work in the Rutgers show grabbed my attention–a stand-out for treading a very different path from the other work in the exhibit.
I also wanted to know more about UD’s jumping into the Philadelphia art scene at the Crane–a bold move that immediately signaled an interest in bringing the Delaware program into a now flourishing contemporary art world here in Philadelphia. So we met a little over a month ago over coffee at the Green Line.
Winn, BFA RISD and MFA Cranbrook, came to the University of Delaware at a time when a number of simultaneous retirements meant the UD art department was able to reinvent itself. Part of that reinvention was to find a way to take advantage of Philadelphia’s contemporary art scene and art-critical eyes.
Winn gives credit for bringing the MFA show to the Crane to a number of people with Fishtown, Crane, and UD ties–especially Justyna Badach, who was on the faculty for a while. Their first MFA show opened there three years ago, taking advantage of the timing of the Penn MFA and other shows’ foot traffic. The concept was to bring the work into a contemporary and critical setting.
To build on the concept of bringing top-notch criticism and savvy eyes and ideas to the students, Delaware invites big-name art speakers already headed to Philadelphia for talks and critiques. “The train is the stream,” Winn said. For example, all Julie Heffernan had to do was jump on the train to get to Delaware. Plus the UD students attend the guest artists lectures at Penn and the ICA.
Winn came here from teaching at Carnegie Mellon. He also coordinated the graduate program Cranbrook, as a replacement for a faculty member of sabbatical. “I was younger than everyone in the program.”
The Delaware program, now recreated as studio-based and interdisciplinary, has already seen the pay-off–more applications, and more apps from out-of-state and international students. With only 10 slots, the program has become more selective and in the swim of things.
Then I asked Winn about his own work.
“I’ve been obsessed with the idea of the form and the formless (relating it to the war in Iraq). The car bomb is an almost perfect representation of the formless. The Ford assembly line is a model of the West. I was thinking of the car as a box. And then the explosive car struck me as a way to think about a lot of things in the world.”
He also has been thinking about paintings, even about Bob Ross‘ how-to-do-it, one-stroke flower painting technique, where you dip the brush into two colors and wiggle the brush to get a flower–doing “something paint does really well–how it creates a path and how it blends.
“I start with a stable text (a word or phrase) or image, and I use it to become something else. The paintings are degenerative, so that, by the end, the starting point becomes irrelevant. The painting is a performative object; if the way it’s constructed is not relevant to its meaning, there are so many other ways to make images.
“I’ve been thinking about Jasper Johns a lot. I’m not proud of the fact (he laughs). I like …the way the American flag in John’s work loses its ability to mean.”
Then Winn went on to talk about 9/11, and the repeated tv images. “For most of us, we experienced it through an image. It had a very real emotional impact but also it was very distanced. So I wanted to cope with these things in art, but I was concerned about the danger of the experience becoming aestheticized.
“In the paintings, I’m contemplating something by tracing it, …tracing the plane as a caligraphic mark until it becomes something else. I’ve been looking at fluid dynamics and the way one thing impacts another. The paint and the image—the ripples in a stream hit a small rock, then hit something else and you’re in a state of chaos.
“It’s a small world, and one thing impacts another in a way it never has before. …During the Bush era I wrote the words American flag until it turned black and nothing was there. So that one needs a tag.
“Life on Mars, by tracing the letters it turned into a piece about the virtual and the computer screen as escapism–it was never touched by my hand but created (from computer output) by a laser.”
Then Winn went on to talk about a couple of experiences that went into his thinking about high versus low art as a false dichotomy. One was Cranbrook, where there were no preconceptions about design versus art. He said something about the insidious nature of design and how we are not even aware that it’s acting on us. The other experience was a job he had working for an architecture firm. “I listened to them talk about the meaning of space. They have whole days when they talk about the threshold!”
That conflation of high and low is not only in his paintings. It’s in his sculptures–kitschy, horrific objects like an airplane crashing into a wall–a sort of lit-up wall sconce in an edition of 10, or a lit up Buddhist monk lawn ornament, about 3 or 4 feet high. “They are small public sculpture,” he declared. “It’s the domestic as a form of public expression.”
Then he returned to his beginning topic–form becoming formless. Chicken wire, a grid, can get stretched to a sort of formlessness. And then if he coats it in foam, as he did in his exploding car lawn ornament, the underlying form disappears altogether. And from there he went on to talking about an emptiness in the middle–in the paintings, in the sculptures. Then he worried. “If the residue of an action can’t be contained in a discrete thing, then where can we go?”
Then he was back on the students and how the program nurtures whatever it is they do. “If you collect stuff, how can you collect stuff better? Jim Zeske–he’s one of the students–will bring up [for the MFA show] his entire installation in a giant canvas backpack. He’s a wanderer, and he’s in a band on the basement circuit on the East Coast, with no money.
“Philadelphia is more affordable. People can take risks. Like Providence. That’s why those groups (of artists) came out of Providence. There were all those empty indsutrial spaces and all those creative people. All they needed was to make $100 a month. Philly has always felt that way, with a diversity of ways to get by.”