Caitlin Winner’s radiant narratives

Season of Plenty II, Caitlin Winner, oil on canvas, 65″ x 67″

Note: I was honored to be included in Manifest Gallery’s Painted biennial, an international survey of new painting, yet the show came and went before I had a chance to write about it. A week ago, though, near the end of the exhibit, I participated in a Zoom call with 15 or so of the artists showing at Manifest, including a few from the collateral exhibitions: Jason Bly to talk about his solo show and some painters from the galleries concurrent overview of exceptional recent watercolor painting. It was a stimulating discussion that ran into the evening for those of us on the Eastern side of the country, exciting partly because the work from these artists is among the best Manifest has gathered for Painted, and also because some of the artists were exceptionally articulate. I felt tongue-tied much of the time as I tried to speak briefly about what I’ve been able to write about more fluently in these posts. There’s almost no work in the show that didn’t impress me at one level or another, sometimes to the point of envy and sometimes despite my own aesthetic preferences. I’m going to try to post work from these painters every few days, alternating with paintings from the current group show at Oxford Gallery here in Rochester. I was so impressed by one painter in particular, I reached out to her and got some interesting answers to the questions I posed. This post is based on my response to her painting and what she wrote back.

Caitlin Winner works very slowly and deliberately, putting in more time on her paintings than nearly anyone I know. It shows in the strength of the results. Two of her large canvases were included in Manifest’s Painted exhibit in October, and they take perceptual painting to a place I love. I admire the work of most of the perceptual painters, though I think of it as a larger aesthetic space than do its primary practitioners, and I would include in its ranks painters whose work doesn’t exhibit many of its most familiar stylistic hallmarks—and aren’t usually considered part of the club. Above all else, Winner is an exceptional colorist, which I think sets her apart from much of the “perceptualists,” whose color is often remarkable but more subservient to other ends. Erin Raedeke’s paintings of birthday party detritus from a decade ago have been an exception, achieving a rare and delicate touch in the selection and use of color almost for its own sake. Yet color is boldly front and center for Winner in a way that isn’t the case with people like Zoey Frank and many others in that growing collective. I think of color as one of many equivalent formal tools most of the perceptual painters use to create a way of seeing that hovers between abstraction and representation, creating a sense of temporal disorientation, so that the past seems to move into view, blurring the contours of the present moment, creating what feels like the inexactitude of remembrance. David Baird, whose paintings were hanging beside Winner’s in the Manifest exhibit, offers an astonishing example of this: the gorgeous, autumnal tones of his images work to reinforce a dreamlike sense of temporal dislocation. Yet even with Baird, color—masterfully chosen—is on an equal footing with shape, value, line, and so on.

With Winner, as with someone like Louisa Mattiasdottir and Fairfield Porter, in October Interior, color becomes almost the overarching visual mission itself, with all the other formal qualities in a subservient role, even though so much else is going on in her devotion to the figures she shows the viewer: family and close friends who enriched her life during the pandemic’s most isolating months. The precision and clarity of her line also distinguishes her from many of her peers. Eve Mansdorf talks about the importance of edges, but clearly defined edges aren’t a mainstay for most perceptual painters who tend to elide and obscure the transitions between figure and ground. Winner’s outlines could have been drawn with a pair of scissors inherited from Matisse. The edges in her work bring to mind the clarity and definition of geometric abstraction from the 1960s. Her canvases have the translucent luminosity of watercolor, even though the oil is undoubtedly layered and opaque. Her color is intense and radiant, heighted by juxtapositions of complementary tones, but it nonetheless offers a visually accurate sense of immediacy in the way direct sunlight falls onto an outdoor scene. It’s almost impossible to capture the radiance of a bright summer day with photography, which favors the magic hour, early or late, when sunlight is diffused into the air, for bringing out the most vivid color without losing definition in the shadows. Yet here the relentless, high sun casts no colorless, murky shade. Foliage on the far side of a lake becomes a uniform curtain of beautiful green, a block of distinct color, as saturated in tone as anything in the foreground. Everything is crisply defined and drenched with color, like an old Kodachrome slide on a light table—it’s the light of the Impressionists—yet her figures are solid physical presences cut cleanly from their surroundings, not simply extensions of it, except in the way their color harmonizes with and enriches the color of what’s around them. Her kitchen interior works the same way: everything glows with color and light, nothing lost to shadow, no highlights overexposed, as inevitably the lights and darks would end up in a snap shot of the same room.

The arrangement of the figures in her work looks random and candidly “of the moment,” as it would in a series of snapshots, yet the paintings are rigorously structured. Winner based Season of Plenty’s composition on Piero’s Resurrection (which Aldous Huxley in a hyperbolic mood referred to as “the greatest painting in the world.”) The obvious triangle formed by the people assembled on the dock is counterbalanced by the downward-pointed chevrons in the boards of the dock, which are echoed and extended by the backs, arms, legs and other lines in the surrounding composition. Even after ten months of working on this canvas it isn’t clear that she’s quite done with it, based on her commentary. Season of Plenty II, the centerpiece of the Manifest show, achieves a perfect balance between abstraction and representation. It isn’t as first apparent how structural lines merge and unite background and foreground, because the image is so instantly convincing as a transcription of a family scene. (Her close-up photography of details shows how rough the paint actually appears on the surface, and how the eye resolves her painterly marks into a seamless image from a distance.) There are a couple concentric circles in the upper left quadrant that run through the background and the figures, and though they are subtle, they look fanciful until you understand that she’s using a trope from photography: the sun flare created by sunlight falling directly on a lens. Cleverly, her central figure’s tan lines become a continuation of a horizontal line formed by the back end of the dock, and the lower edge of his pectoral muscles, in the same way, picks up and extends the horizon line at the far end of the lake. You only notice these congruities after studying the image, and much of the abstract obscurity surrounding her grouping remains visually inconsequential. It works compositionally but it doesn’t overpower the remarkable realism—remarkable, given how the image breaks down into vigorously-applied paint on a rough surface up close.

What shines through all the work, aside from (but also as a result of) Winner’s technical achievement is an affirmation of love and the simplest pleasures of family life. The wisdom of that affirmation is what could drive a painter to keep going back to a painting for nearly a year. Ironically maybe, the slowness of that work becomes instantly recognizable in the beauty of the image.

Here are Winner’s responses to my questions:

Caitlin, as I mentioned the color in your paintings is what struck me most forcefully, the way in which the color works as visual music on its own merits, but also serves to define the figures in the value of the tones. I like how you are using relatively pure areas of tone that aren’t as muted as the color is in the work of a lot of the perceptual painters. Your paintings might be described as Fairfield Porter meets Louisa Mattiasdottir, and more toward the latter. Though she simplified form more radically, your images make a far more realistic impression: even though the color and detail is dramatically simplified. There’s also some Eve Mansdorf, the crisp edges, but the pentimento of undercoats showing through seems to be valued as an artifact of the painting process with someone like Frank, but with you it’s to create exactly the tone you need, vivid areas of color that stand on their own—as they do in Porter’s Tennis Game or October Interior. Am I characterizing correctly what you’re striving to do in these beautiful scenes?

Thank you, I admire all of these painters very much. 

I was taught to paint in the Hawthorne lineage, by putting one spot of color next to another. I think I sort of fall in love with whatever color I’m mixing. I want it to be the most beautiful version of itself / in relation to the neighboring colors. 

 When you refer back to work from art history, are you influenced only in the way you structure a painting when you work from a Piero or Poussin or Gaugin? Elise Ansel re-interprets Poussin as abstraction and I think she uses an earlier painting almost as a template simply for areas of color and value against which to balance her quick gestural technique, though she has said she channels something spiritual and/or erotic in this assimilation of earlier work. When you draw from Piero are you simply using the geometric composition from the earlier painting or also hoping to present some kind of re-interpretation of what was depicted? I’m guessing the former.

More of the former. Occasionally the history is too good not to play with. I’m working on a scene in a pasture right now with figures and animals. I’m looking at Piero’s nativity but also Titian, The Madonna of the Rabbit, where the rabbit is a symbol of fertility because female rabbits and hares can conceive a second litter of offspring while still pregnant with the first (!). I’m not sure where I’ll take this fact but I am thinking about it as I paint.

You have taken great care to use geometric shapes as organizing visual structures in Season of Plenty II, and elsewhere. These abstract properties are less obtrusive, more integrated into the realistic impression than they are in the work of others. I assume this is your intent: to emphasize the representational power of the work over the abstraction. Am I “reading” your images the way you intend?

The geometry helps me organize the painting and keep the chaos at bay. Sometimes it is symbolic. In season of Plenty II I was thinking about the figures in a circle as seen from above. I tried a circle in perspective at their feet and then later the double sun flares. The sunflares also helped break up the air around the figures. 

Lining up the interior and exterior lines in my “window sill” painting, or body parts with lines in the landscape as in Season of Plenty is a way to make the parts and the whole feel inevitable. 

The figures in that painting almost sit like hours on a clockface or spokes in a wheel. How much of all this is a conscious decision on your part and how much is simply what happens in the long months of work you put in on a painting, and a bit of a surprise when you arrive at the image that looks finished?

I find a lot of it along the way. In “Is there anything new?” finding the geometry in the floor tiles finished the painting after months of struggle.   

What is happening in the months that go into each painting? Are you constantly adjusting the composition, the shapes and arrangement of figures, or are you mostly working on getting the colors exactly right? Zoey Frank seems to pride herself on how she can improvise a figure in different poses as she develops a painting. Are you doing anything like that? Do you have to go back over entire areas with a new ground and begin from scratch or is the work mostly a matter of less dramatic adjustments?

It’s equal parts solving for composition and color/value. I do move figures around, sometimes I change the pose entirely if I can’t make my first idea work.  I like to make progress videos that show all of this. The videos are made up of still photos I take after each painting session.

Did you say during the Zoom call that you had gotten sidetracked into a career in tech? How long did that last and were you painting during the period at all? If you are interested in talking about it, how have you managed to work on painting full time? When did you start drawing or painting, at what age?

My high school had a wonderful art program. I took summer classes and in order to take more art classes during the year. I loved being in the state of making.

My parents were not enthusiastic about my desire to study art in college so I studied economics and later found a way to do art inside the bounds of the emerging tech boom. I started out doing little animations and then building websites, eventually designing websites and working at Facebook on their mobile app.

I started painting soon after I graduated college. I think even then I was looking for an antidote to technology. I lucked out with a vibrant and eccentric first teacher and then again by attending the Jerusalem Studio School’s program in Italy for several summers. After JSS I started to pick out painters I admired and look for opportunities to study with them. I was working in tech throughout and painting on weekends.

How long have you been showing your current work?

Manifest is my first physical show with this body of figurative work.

 I think I saw that you offer prints of your work. Bravo. I have talked about this for years with my painter friends here in Rochester, upstate. I’m glad to see someone is actually doing it: it seems to me a solution to the central problem of visual art now. There’s no way to charge what a painting is worth, given the time and years of learning that go into it, and still reach a public large enough to make visual art something that has a role in the lives of an average educated person.

I agree. It takes time to deal with the higher volume of buyers and do the shipping logistics, that’s the only downside.

Are your figures members of your family? I assume so, but thought I’d ask. It’s hard to imagine working for eight months on a painting of models or strangers.

Yes. Family and a few close friends. 

Your work, strikes me as intensely affirmative, a resounding yes to life. When you structure a painting after Piero’s work, it would be hard to paint something darkly sardonic. Am I right in assuming that you aren’t being ironic or cynical in a painting with a title that includes the word plenty in a cultural season when prosperity and abundance don’t seem in high favor? (Abundance is human, not economic, in my view.)

Yes, no irony. I’m trying to tell believable stories about the world now as it is, and how it can be. Season of Plenty was a pandemic painting and while we were short on toilet paper we were fortunate to have grandparents staying with us long term, a garden and fish in the pond. 


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