Emi Winter at Compact Gallery
Once again compact Gallery has proven the axioms, “bigger is not better” and “less is more.” It is clear from the diversity of their exhibitions so far, that the compact partners refuse to be pigeonholed. What is emerging is not a stylistic direction for the gallery but a commitment to presenting art in a way that honors the work and, by extension, the artists. The partners seem confident that, no matter how difficult or cutting edge, good art will engage the viewer if presented properly.
The current show is a spare and thoughtful installation of only three paintings and six prints by Los Angeles artist Emi Winter. Two of the three paintings are large shaped canvases that activate this small gallery’s space in a remarkably powerful way. Winter’s method is meticulous. The non-objective prints and paintings would seem austere if not for their vibrant color and almost mind-bending spatial illusions.
Emi Winter was born in Oaxaca, Mexico and spent her childhood there. Her suite of prints is titled Seis Aves, Spanish for “six birds.” Each of the six prints is given the name of one of the many birds found in Mexico and has the coloration of tropical birds. This exotic color palette is one of the things that distinguishes Winter’s work from the minimalist art of thirty and forty years ago, although Minimalism is certainly part of her artistic heritage.
In 2001 she was an artist in residence at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. Chinati was founded by Donald Judd in 1979 to “preserve and present permanent large scale installations” by Judd, Dan Flavin and others whose work was stylistically austere and required vast exhibition space. Now Chinati includes education programs and artists’ residencies. Donald Judd was probably the dean of Minimalism despite the fact that he strenuously rejected the term when applied to his work.
During her residency Winter worked with master printer Robert Arber. Together they made prints by seamlessly blending multiple colors of ink on a plate with a large roller. Printmakers call this method a “rainbow roll” but calling Arber’s technique a rainbow roll is akin to calling a Bugatti a car. There are no incised areas in the plate so these might technically be considered monotypes. The printer, though, was able to create consistent editions. Winter continued to work with Arber in Marfa where he printed and published Seis Aves in 2003 as part of an ongoing series with various artists, called the “30 X 30 cm Project.”
After her collaboration with Robert Arber, Winter began to use a variant of this printmaking technique in her paintings. She masks off areas of the painting and then rolls oil paint onto the unmasked areas using brayers (small rollers). She purposely uses more oil paint on the roller in places to create a varied surface. Printmakers who have inadvertently used too much ink on their brayer will recognize the texture. Her careful blending of color creates the illusion of rounded bars hovering just in front of the canvas like the chiaroscuro illusions of the Renaissance masters.
Winter is not making large-scale prints, but instead is substituting the brayer for her paintbrush. In removing the expressive gesture of the artist’s hand, she is a minimalist heir apparent. Yet her motivations are quite apart from those of her predecessors.
The artist explained to me that her upbringing in Oaxaca was very provincial. She was not exposed to abstract art. She was unaware of the modernist movements in Mexico City. She came to her style of abstraction through her meticulous nature and a love of labor that requires careful and painstaking concentration. She learned about Minimalism only later. Her work does not embrace an industrial aesthetic but rather an almost pre-industrial craft aesthetic. Her motivation seems less theoretical than tactile.
Lush color and technical mastery are evident in all of Emi Winter’s work. The small prints and large shaped paintings also have an intimacy that rewards more careful viewing. In the prints this is due, I think, to the small scale and the perfection of the surfaces. In the large paintings, it is the carefully controlled texture left by the brayer. For me, the mid-sized painting lacks this intimacy.
This is the first time the artist has shown her shaped paintings. She spent a year making drawings before having the canvases fabricated. Her care is well rewarded and so are we.
Review of Compact Gallery Exhibition, San Luis Obispo: New Times, 27 May 2004.