Published in the Times Literary Supplement, August 2018
In British artist Paul Winstanley’s book, paintings made from the late 1980s to the present day are arranged alphabetically by title, as though to overturn any notion of artistic progress. It’s a fair enough assertion for most artists, but perhaps especially so for Winstanley, whose work’s narrowness of subject is as particular as anything by his declared heroes Giorgio Morandi and Vilhelm Hammershøi, and as rich for it. His vocabulary of interstitial spaces – lobbies, corridors, parks, and so on – is painted with a kind of indistinct naturalism that both points to its photographic source and holds it at arm’s length. For Winstanley, the photograph stands not as code for mediated experience, as it so often does in photo-based painting; it’s a means by which painting can assert its independence from given reality and enter a new space of thought.
Renaissance theorists understood painting as a uniquely intellectual art, and one tied to the revitalised art of classical rhetoric. Mathematical perspective is, after all, a means of organising time as well as space, much as a written sentence is. Painting and writing are natural bedfellows. When the eye sinks into the recessive depths of Winstanley’s paintings, a temporal space, a little like a memory, opens up inside the viewer’s head. The vernacular post-war modernism of the artist’s visual language is part of this fixation on the passing, but it also provides the means to evoke a profound visual depth, just as classical architecture did for Renaissance painters. The centralised depictions of the pedestrian bridge in Night Walkway 3 (2005) and the graffitied underpass in Walkway (Grey) (1995) are structured in response to the painted surface, so that the rectangle of the canvas recedes, echo-like, into fictive distance. Because Winstanley’s paintings behave like language, it’s small wonder that when figures do appear, they often turn their backs to us, caught in an absorption that’s very like reading.
Any reader of Van Gogh’s letters, or Gerhard Richter’s essays, will gladly refute the old saw that artists shouldn’t write about their work. As with these exemplars, Winstanley as author stands somewhere between actor and audience, providing technical insights rarely discussed in academic writing while shrugging along with the reader at the complexities of a painting’s meaning. Winstanley’s is a self-reflective practice – his bleak waiting rooms acting like funhouse mirrors of the gallery’s interior – but even when he gestures towards interpretation, he pauses at the brink of revelation. ‘The completion of the image, the sense to be made of it, is an offer the painting makes to the viewer’: this book is a reminder of the generosity and the complexity of that offer.