You would not know where to begin to read the image. It looks simple enough. There is clarity to the formal composition. Extraneous details have been set aside, and the planes of perception are drawn out, overlaid with complex modalities of seeing. There are so many routes into the image, so many points of recognition within the composition, and yet you do not know where to begin and, for that matter, where to close off or frame your reading. In Paul Winstanley’s work the image is defined according to a frame of perception, where the image exists both to represent a scene witnessed, and to convey a position for the viewer within that. This much is given. Where the witness once was so now you stand in a reconstruction of the scene. This much you think you know.
As if you witness. As if. And then again, as if the painting once was indistinguishable from the site of contemplation. A type of indirect witnessing, belated, after the fact, but nevertheless as intense an ethical encounter as the immediate experience. But the complexity of these paintings occurs with what we might call an internal or simultaneous critique. The painting is at once the object of contemplation, the object transposed into formal representation and also a sort of commentary on its own rhetoric of representation.
Representation is hard won, and must negotiate the subjectivity of the observer along the way. This has nothing to do with likeness; likeness is a technicality based on complicity within genre. But the painting here is more concerned with an ethical dimension in relation to what it represents. The painting becomes a site that critiques and possibly even undermines its own documentary status. At the same time it posits itself as a place of encounter, albeit deferred, a place of facing up. Facing up to what exactly is less relevant here than the act of engagement within space, and the possibility of re-entering that space, now realised, fictionalised, consolidated, reiterated, virtualised at once. Wholly engaged, ethically implicated, nevertheless the painting stands at the threshold of what it paints. You know the scene, therefore, only from here, from where you stand. You cannot move forward into it.
Because the viewer, too, is always on the threshold, where there is a formal and even ethical choice whether or not to become complicit with the scene. We might wish to invoke Caspar David Friedrich here, suggesting a decentred perspective that cannot be extrapolated back towards a viable observation point. The scene is understood from where you stand, but as the painting reflects back upon the viewer there is an ambiguity to the viewer’s position. You cannot retrieve the viewer from the image, even if the image is all about the act of looking. The viewer is displaced according to conventional perspective and is suspended, unsited, perpetually subject to be on the threshold of participation.
As a consequence there is silence. At this belated moment, the witness is mute, not knowing where to look or how to look. In the absence of the subject the eye is drawn to the periphery, attempting to define the field of vision. But that too is elusive; it always performs beyond the frame of direct perception. As you become aware of what might occur at the field of vision you might well be tempted to avert your gaze from your centred position towards what, for you, now, at the very borders of what is perceptible. But in that turning away, of course, those borders evaporate or are reconfigured elsewhere.
It is tempting to read the painting for its image as a direct correlative to its subject. But to determine the image in this way would lead to an emptied scenario and an uncomfortable sense of lack. Certainly there is more often than not something missing in Winstanley’s paintings that might work as yardstick – a figure, an explicit object, the artist or viewer in place. But the work is not simply about that lack. We might read likeness as a symptom rather than subject. Indeed, we might wish to invoke Didi-Huberman’s notion that this site within the painting “is more event than painted object.” We carry forward the image as something constantly reconfiguring itself, reinventing itself within its given parameters. The subject is all but given, enabling the painting as a site of becoming, of transformation.
Images recur in Winstanley’s work. Or rather, the scene is revisited repeatedly, differentiating little more than nuance with no determination or motive to that difference. The belated encounter with each new painting seeks a correction of sorts, where time is embodied into the image.
The scene of Utopia, for example, has hardly changed from the first version of the scene to the second. The addition of the potted plant is entirely incidental, and architectural features have changed, but there is little to be read into these. They carry no symbolic weight. What is so significant about these two paintings is not the quest for articulated difference, but the revisiting of sameness as a definition of the obligations of painting.
The image is uncannily similar. Not a copy as such, but a genuine reconfiguration over time of the same locus, the same perspective. But it is never the same. There is no repetition. We might recall Kierkegaard’s contention here that recollection and repetition constitute the same movement in opposite directions. Is the painting, here, a site of memory, where features are to be constructed as faithfully as possible from the photograph, from innumerable visits to the scene? In the centre of the frame, difference all but dissipates, and your eye must rely on occurrences that flow beyond the borders of the frame or composition. And every time you seek this difference it take you away from the event or non-event as such.
At the centre of the image, then, a recognition of something that might not be formalised but nevertheless signals difference. Perhaps we might speak in terms of the embedded experience of the work, which disfigures and reformulates over time. In simple terms, then, the painting re-enacts an event of itself, materialising, in a Bergsonian sense, through the passage of time. Time, here, produces a form of difference that is not measured in material terms – since the formal considerations are all but the same, the second painting remarks upon the first, referring back and forth to and from it, insisting upon two directions of recollection. Whichever painting you encounter first, the memory of the other constructs a mild cognitive dissonance, a discrepancy between what you read and what you remember. You gaze upon the scene, here, now, and must construct the scene for yourself with simultaneous recollection of how it was then.
Again, it is important to emphasise that these two paintings exist not to mark progression one from another, not to ‘get it right’ in some technical way, in the manner of Cézanne and Mont Saint-Victoire, but to reinforce the scene’s materiality. Same scene. Same point of view. No unforeseen conditions of reception. It is the viewer only who seeks difference, who sees it differently, from one time or event to another.
It is no accident, then, that landscape for Winstanley is always beyond, always already framed, glazed, distant. The landscape is increasingly shrouded, set apart, stilled. There are features in this inaccessible landscape, but they affect the viewer only from a safe, detached perspective. The landscape is not quite the conceptual neutral background of, say, Bernd and Hilla Becher’s typologies, but there is a resistance to the seduction of landscape. You are always outside of it.
Paintings from the Little Finland and Birch series, for example, would ironically seem to confirm this, even as there is no architectural framing to support the view and the painter’s perspective would appear to be as if within the view. In this contemplative scene there is no rest. The point of view is not an authoritative perspective, but something peripheral or ungraspable. The landscape, here, becomes as transitional as Winstanley’s corridors; non-sites where the viewer cannot get a grip on the image. The blur is deeply embedded in the source of the image and its refusal to stabilise before your eyes. The blur is not an accident of motion but implies a decentred, ambiguous, image where, again, you do not know where to begin to look.
It is so often a case of transitional spaces for Winstanley. Although this is an easy line in relation to his work’s content, the paintings are not so much institutional critiques, but throw the image back onto the obligations of the painter. If the job at hand is to mark space, and to bear witness, these spaces resist us in all sorts of ways. They are not finite or resolved. Perspective is an obscure game here, as it draws the eye towards a sense of somewhere else that refuses to be defined. You cannot see beyond. There is nowhere to go. The Walkway paintings, for example, replicate that existential displacement as one crosses from one side of the motorway to the other. (One non-place dependent upon another.) The paintings do not mark the journey, but rather suggest a journey unmade that cannot in turn be articulated except through the eyes of an ungrounded, dislocated observer. In such indeterminate sites, by definition, there is no perspective from which you might wholly take in the scene. Paintings such as Pod 2 and Pod 3, meanwhile, almost reflections of each other, suggest a circular walkway, but there is an unarticulated lacuna between the two circular canvases. The trajectory between the two is never joined. Not so much an infinite recession here, but a visual discontinuity suggested by perpetual motion. No vanishing point. Neither point of departure nor arrival. Again, these are transitional spaces through which you might be tempted to slow down to take in the view. But that too is elusive. The pace and perspective are out of sync.
The problem is that the harder you look the less the image beyond is available to you. The gaze is defeated by mediating devices such as frame or reflection. Dark Glass literalises a distancing of the image this achieves. The reflection produces a flatness in what is reflected. It returns your gaze as the always already imaged, virtual, defying depth or perspective. Focus is hardly possible and, more problematically, the reflection takes you still further away from what lies beyond the vanishing point. It is not simply an aesthetic concern in relation to the interrupting window within image or even the ‘real’ that is framed beyond it, but rather the articulation through such paintings that there is never an immediate take upon the scene.
The image will always reflect, deflect, in any representation of the scene. It gets in the way of its own obligations to represent. The more intensely focused, the more literal the representation, the more the eye must unsee the making of the image if that image is to prove readable at all. Winstanley’s paintings sustain a doubly embedded image that not only recognises this deflection but rearticulates it within the subject of the image itself. The strategic act of unseeing might be defined through the simple act of, say, looking in a mirror. You choose not to scrutinise the object that renders your image visible to you in a temporary suspension of disbelief.
The achievement of Winstanley’s paintings in this regard is that he embeds this act of looking and the stages of unseeing within the work. This in turn produces a secondary level of conflation between the image and its reading. They cannot thereafter be separated. We might wish to read the repetition of the image as it is reworked from one canvas to the next as an attempt at closure, at withdrawal. That is, every time the image is rendered explicit, it renders itself simultaneously complex and almost unreadable. The ‘repeated’ image (it is, as we have established, never a repetition) might be simultaneous or consequential, but each makes demands of readability upon the other. We are talking here in terms of the works’ point of origin rather than any installation or designated pairing by the artist. The reworking and repetition might often be read as a private form of renegotiation.
In this way we understand Winstanley’s revisited sites as existing not within the realm of a represented reality but that of representation itself. This is what enables the scene to be populated, as if seeking to render the act of looking upon the scene from the outside within the frame of perception itself. This might be obviously understood in, say, the TV Room paintings, where a particularly complex set of acts of looking are posited. In the empty room the television (another glazed, framed window, of course) gives nothing away, but both the room and its framing as image are articulated towards it in expectation. But this is not a private, singular scenario. Were you to come here to observe, you too might be observed in your personal act of looking. Looking is never unencumbered for Winstanley. It is performative; it makes something. It makes something happen.
The observer is occasionally observed within this scene, observed in isolation. According to the internal logic of the painting, we must view him from behind. He becomes part of the viewer’s act of observing; a parallel gaze. The focus is so intense that it displaces the viewer’s gaze towards the broader space articulated by the canvas and beyond. There are so many such windows in Winstanley’s work and only occasionally do we find a figure staring out. The Woman at a Window series articulates this additional plane of observation, but yields little of what might be going on beyond the window, here supplementally framed by its curtains.But the painter does not need such formal devices to mark these layered frames of perception. A recent small painting of Tiananmen Square is foregrounded by a group of soldiers viewed, as ever, from behind. They figure closer to the painter’s point of view than almost any painting Winstanley has made, and yet the distance between them and the scene they observe could not be more defined. To observe the scene, even from within it, is to step apart from it to some degree, to become self-conscious in the act of looking, in the act of making.
Threshold, Published by Artspace, 2008