You Are The Punctuation But The Text is Not a Caption

Thyrza Nichols Goodeve writes about fellow Art Practice faculty Robin Winters’ current exhibition at Present Company, in Brooklyn, New York. The show is on view through January 17th. 

And as I encountered any such sentence, the question I would ask myself in marvelment was: how did this thing come to be what it now is? This was when I started gazing into sentence after sentence and began to discover that there was nothing arbitrary or unwitting or fluky about the shape any sentence had taken and the sound it was releasing into the world. [1] — Gary Lutz, “The Sentence Is A Lonely Place” Believer, January 2009

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One arrives at the front door of the gallery, Present Company, in Bushwick to see Robin Winters exhibition Free Standing Sentence and is greeted by an unassuming grey metal door with modest sign, framed by the ubiquitous urban tic—a rushed spray graffiti tag. From far away, 254 Johnson Street in Brooklyn, looks like any of the possible repurposed industrial spaces that were once ubiquitous in the art world. And this isn’t by accident. “It’s old school,” says Winters, “That’s why I chose it.”  

Winters has an allergy to pomposity and smug self-importance, a trait at the basis of the charm and drive of his personality and art practice. He is known for his love of the fool and the creation of such working Joes as W.B. Bearman who in 1975 arrived from downtown Broadway in Manhattan by subway every day at the Whitney Museum, sometimes wearing a bear mask on the train, clocked in, and spent eight hours every day for two months in a self-made box divided into two parts. A one-way mirror separated one part for the artist and the smaller part for the audience who watched him at “work” playing music or telling fortunes through a microphone installed in the box. “ (W.B. Bearman Bags a Job or Diary of a Dreamer” was the first durational performance at the Whitney Museum).

As a founding member of Co-Lab he curated shows as anti-Blue Chip as The Doctors and Dentists ShowThe Batman Show and, certain to be a hit today, The Dog Show.  But nothing undid the entire premise of the artist-viewer relationship than when he and his collaborator Coleen Fitzgibbon robbed the audience in their performance Take the Money and Run performed at De Appel in Amsterdam in 1976. Not until the following day did they apologize and return what had been stolen, compounding the mischief by announcing a lottery to win the artists’ services. As Take the Money and Run exemplifies, Winters was experimenting with social practice before it was a glint in Nicolas Bourriard’s eye. Take the exhibition Playroom which took placeat the ICA in Boston in 1986. For it he covered the walls with paper and placed cardboard boxes around the room. As if to poke a finger at Josef Beuys’s famous comment, “everyone is an artist,” the art in the exhibition was indeed made only by the audience.

Taking down power and tickling the art world’s ribs, as well as focusing on the viewer’s interaction and collective work, is essential to Robin Winters art practice. It is therefore no accident Free Standing Sentence appears in the unpretentious informal curatorial collective exhibition space of Present Company run by Vince Contarino, Brian Balderston, Chad Stayrook & José Ruiz. Here he has managed to merge the spirit of Co Lab, the grittiness of the small urban gallery of the 70s and 80s, and, the utterly pleasurable smart-dumb profundity of his work.

The three walls of the main room are fitted with one extended “run-on” mantelpiece, or altar, which wraps around the room. Along this shelf, Winters has placed a sentence of objects of his wildly silly, moving, weird, awkward hand-made glass heads, wax molds, box paintings, and printed texts. A pair of found-on-the-street realistic toy dogs, topped with blown glass hat-plates, sit quietly, without explanation, in the far right of the room. Below the line of objects, hang five professionally framed drawings, spaced generously as if in a traditional gallery exhibition. The decision to move them to kids-eye or dogs-eye view is critical. Had he placed the large drawings above the shelf, as one would in a home or conventional gallery, the exhibition would have lost much of its humor and impact, becoming “arty”, in other words, exactly what Winters can’t stand.

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The collection of objects on the left side of the room contains the title of the exhibition; it is most likely where people start. One then moves right, as if one were a pair of eyes gliding across a page. “[H]ow did this thing come to be what it now is?”  asks Gary Lutz. The answer—within the context of Free Standing Sentence – at the very moment of movement of the viewer’s body, mind, attention, and imagination.

 In other words the sentence is written using Winters’ lexicon: drawings, misshapen heads made of ceramic and glass; quirky glass hats, some on top of the little heads (and of course the dogs) ; angels and other tchotchkes cast in dark wax from molds he inherited from a family that manufactured Christmas ornaments; box paintings shown here for the first time; hauntingly elegant embossed prints made from pressing the paper into a woodblock line-drawing without ink, originally made for an exhibition for the blind; and of course the sentences, some plaintive, others reflective, which appear as objects too because they are printed on sheets of common paper, propped up with wire and play-doe, stuck on painted cardboard boxes. “Clearly I am a small link in a long chain one little bird in the flock,”  he says in one of his aphorisms.

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And yet, moving right, reading contiguously in one continuous present, each visitor constructs their own syntactical logic and rhythm. Objects are turned into morphemes—units of meaning produced in a dialect formed inside each person’s head. Whether one is turning glass hats and painted boxes into “A group of words, usually containing a verb, that expresses a thought in the form of a statement, question, instruction, or exclamation” (“Sentence”: Cambridge Online Dictionary) is utterly up to us. 

Changing one’s self and fitting into

the environment.  Not here.   The

words form the buildings but the text

is not a caption.  Don’t try to use

words to undo me.   This is the

specificity of memory.   The longing of

longing.

At one moment we are a comma, another, a dash. Whether we pause, or glide by, it is really the viewer who controls the punctuation that decides whether to “read” this:

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Or this:

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playing the role of the conjunction—and, but, or, if—or the serial comma (Oxford or not). The effect is a kind of whimsical quotidian poetics, a carnival ride through the sensibility of Robin Winters, feeling a bit like the tracking shot in Yvonne Rainer’s Journeys from Berlin where a bowl of hot spaghetti is followed by photos of women anarchists.

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Still from Journeys of Berlin/1971, directed by Yvonne Rainer (1980)

 I started gazing into sentence after sentence and began to discover that there was nothing arbitrary or unwitting or fluky about the shape any sentence had taken and the sound it was releasing into the world. (Lutz)

In fact, Winters toiled, like a working editor. “I edited this show a lot. I brought down three times as much text and twice as many objects and paintings because I really couldn’t tell how it was going to feel in the room. So first I laid out the paintings then I took down all the paintings and laid down only text, then I took down all the text and I laid out all the little glass heads. I left out all the little wax pieces until the very end because they seemed to apply in spots.”

After all, he is a closet poet who sends out birthday poems to “friends” on Facebook and creates ingenious profile-poems of the first year participants in Art Practice after they have given their initial presentation. The poems are casual and intimate, wise and playful, wry if not at times sentimental, like this exhibition. But don’t call him a poet. Back comes his anti-pretention shield. “Well as much as I hate art I hate poems more. I mean when I think of listening to poems at a St. Marks poetry reading, I’m turned off completely.” In fact, he doesn’t differentiate any of the many mediums, genres, and actions of his art practice. Of course a wax cat tchotchke with a blue hat is the same as a printed Robin Winters sentence. His is an inclusive, expansive practice. A far cry from the hellish world of the sentence for Gary Lutz.

The sentence, with its narrow typographical confines, is a lonely place, the loneliest place for a writer, and the temptation for the writer to get out of one sentence as soon as possible and get going on the next sentence is entirely understandable. In fact, the conditions in just about any sentence soon enough become (shall we admit it?) claustrophobic, inhospitable, even hellish.

As travelers along the tracking shot of Winter’s free standing sentence, there is nothing hellish nor inhospitable, nor claustrophobic. And certainly one does not feel lonely, but rather crowded with a universe of meanings. In fact, we can read Winters’ free standing sentence however we want, as many times as we want, and it will never be the same. There is no temptation “to get out” and onto the next sentence because this sentence stands alone. In fact, if anything, the impulse is to re-read and linger; read backwards or head across the room, moving back and forth in a zigzag, producing endless variants. As Alexandra Hammond (MFA AP15) says in her review of the show in The Brooklyn Rail: “Free Standing Sentence is a show by and for the pedestrian, the stroller, the flaneur, who looks, thinks and creates associations as s/he moves through (and is moved by) the world. “

[1]http://www.believermag.com/issues/200901/?read=article_lutz