Joseph Winterhalter calls his current exhibition at the Weston Art Gallery Leaving the 21st Century. Leaving? Whoa, we just got here, didn't we?
Winterhalter, whose affinity toward modern French philosophers underlies all his art, considers time in Einsteinian, postmodern ways. He throws out that title to make the viewer think, but it's hardly necessary. These marvelously inscrutable, quietly beautiful canvases can make viewers think all by themselves.
The paintings are large, close to 8 feet high by nearly 6 feet wide, big enough to virtually engulf someone giving a close look. Not a bad sensation at all, but different from seeing the same thing from across the room.
"LVG 21c. #16" is perhaps the most dramatic example of this difference. A formidable accomplishment of acrylic, acrylic resin, alkyd, enamel, graphite, Dykem steel blue layout fluid and oil, it's then subjected to repeated waxings. This is Winterhalter's approach to encaustic painting, making this work layered and shadowed in a manner that sets it off from most of the rest.
From a distance, shapes form and depth appears; when close, the controlling experience is the subtle variation of color. Its long period of composition, 2003 to 2007, suggests the work's complexity.
Most of the large paintings are dated 2007, although it's clear from other evidence that their inception began long before the first of the year.
"Space is bigger in the mind than in actuality," says Winterhalter, explaining why his projected 20 works series for the Weston Gallery ultimately became 13 paintings.
Two smaller related pieces in the main galleries and a mockup of the artist's former studio on 13th Street in Over-the-Rhine in the small room off the Weston's east gallery bolster the large paintings. In that studio his thought processes for this show took shape, germinating over three years. There's a desk with a typewriter, recalling what the artist told his gallery talk audience on June 26: "I write around what I paint and paint around what I write."
Stencils are in a casual clutter on the floor, and a row of drawings shows studies for most of the paintings in the galleries.
Everything starts in his black notebook, Winterhalter has said, and perhaps most telling is the Xerox of a sketchbook page at far left in the center row of items mounted on the "studio" wall. It is the nascent suggestion of "LVG 21c. #12," its central motif fully formed. The finished painting is the same height as the others but narrower, only 53 inches wide. It has human-like proportions, and the grids that dominate many of the works are absent here. Instead, the muted, mottled gray/green/hint-of-pink background has been drawn rather than ruled.
"Painting," Winterhalter says, "it's all about the hand."
The hand of the artist is nowhere more apparent than in this work, which he says "shows the bones."
Winterhalter, who originally intended to be a filmmaker, considers painting as the solving of problems.
"The sketches are the architecture," he says. "The juice is the act of painting, the sheer physicality of the process. ... One thing leads to another."
He has developed his own labor-intensive means to achieving his ends. Layering using thin, transparent color, "tattooing the canvas" with a material that's applied, scraped, applied again, eventually giving the whole thing a look consistent with that of encaustic paintings, although his technique is different. He works on canvases tacked on the wall, the paint tightening them, and puts them on stretchers only when he's finished.
Ideas thrive here -- fragmentary, tantalizing, ultimately unfinished, as the viewer is expected to bring a personal layer of understanding to the work. In the first painting of the exhibition, "Untitled (Necropolis)," a public building runs across the top of the canvas; below is a city map grid with a route marked.
Nearby, "LVG 21c. #6" shows what appears to be a green tile wall, the greens marvelously variable. See "LVG21c. #1" -- listed as "A" and mounted on a structural post in the gallery -- for a small sketch in which ideas closely related to "#6" are launched.
Grids abound, in one form or another. In "LVG 21c. #11" the grid is tilted to become diamond shaped and the design reads like a floor pattern gone askew, carelessly refitted. In "LVG 21c. #9" perspective games are going on -- the top and bottom of a painted panel each slant out.
Most works hover at the edge of abstraction. But surprise! "LVG 21c. #13" is a portrait of a shower curtain. The grid appears demurely as a net section at top; the curtain itself is a sensual exercise in color (pink) and folds.
Quite near hangs "LVG 21c. #10" in which carefully painted, oddly ominous canisters are lined on shelves colored the same pink as the shower curtain. What are we to make of that? I have some ideas, and I bet you do, too.
Modern French philosophy urges us not to accept what has come before. Article "B," a found mirror Winterhalter calls "Untitled (Occam's Vanity)," provides the unnerving sight of oneself, looking in. The mirror carries an enigmatic message in lipstick, but I think the message, pared as the (non-French) philosopher Occam would have it, might be "Get cracking, you! Think about where we are and where we're going."
No quick and facile answers here, but these exceptional paintings urge us to consider implications. Grade: A-
LEAVING THE 21ST CENTURY is on view at the Weston Art Gallery downtown through Aug. 31.