PRINT February 1974

Jackie Winsor

HER MATERIALS ARE PLYWOOD, pine, rope, brick, twine, nails, lathing, and trees. From them she makes compact objects, natural and easy in their physicality; unpretentious, but formally intelligent in their use of a tension between material and process, process and result. Their immediate impact comes from their scale, quite different from that of much current sculpture because it is so inherent, seems to depend so little on the space in which they are placed. Winsor’s sculptures evoke the outdoors, not pictorially so much as by their tensile strength and crude vitality. Yet the process by which they are made is an obsessive, time-consuming one. The natural materials are bound and confined rather than gestural. The nature evoked is Northern in its rawness and rigidity, perhaps reflecting the artist’s childhood on the bleak coast of Newfoundland, which “has been made barren both by civilization, when farmers cleared the land, and by nature, the wind and the sea.” She admits to a “romantic, nostalgic connection” with the place. “It’s the scale that has interested me. Most places diminish in scale when you go back to them as an adult. This one didn’t at all. New York is the only place I’ve lived since Newfoundland that has that same sense of scale and dealing with the environment.”

Winsor lists her central concerns as “repetition, weightiness, density, and the unaltered natural state of materials.” I would have added scale, obsessiveness, time, nature, and a visceral body reaction verging on the sensual. Coming into her first one-woman show at Paula Cooper in October, 1973, where ten pieces lay or leaned or stood about in that vast and pristine space, one’s first sensation was of dislocation. The scale of the sculpture is both immense and intimate. For instance, plywood square, in which no plywood is visible because it has been wrapped in rough twine until it has become a rounded and angular bundle with a surface bound into a cross-shape; first it looks little, then when you think of it as little, it suddenly looks huge for something that’s little, and you realize it’s big. Actually, it’s just medium size (4’ x 4’).

The same goes for bound square, whose intimacy originates, I think, in an endearing awkwardness engendered by the fat wrapped corners, then de-emphasized by the lean barked trees which seem particularly straight and solid between the rounded corners. Or maybe they are fragile, since they’ve been bandaged into an “unnatural” form (the square is very rarely found in nature); nature in traction, nature only temporarily tamed. Winsor often refers to “muscle” when she talks about her work, not just the muscle it takes to make the pieces and haul them around, but the muscle which is the kinesthetic property of wound and bound forms, of the energy it takes to make a piece so simple and still so full of an almost frightening presence, mitigated but not lessened by a humorous gawkiness.

Repetition in Winsor’s work refers not to form, but to process; that is, to the repetition of single-unit materials which finally make up a unified, single form after being subjected to the process of repeatedly unraveling, then the process of repeatedly binding or the process of repeatedly nailing into wood or the process of repeatedly sticking bricks in cement or the process of repeatedly gouging out tracks in plywood. Winsor’s materials are often recalcitrant; there is an obsessive quality in the way she has to wrestle with them—remnants of a puritan work ethic, perhaps. For me, the circular rope pieces have less inherent tension because rope does coil naturally (though not around itself). On the other hand, straight or almost straight lines, grids, or squares made from trees, heavy three-dimensional structures made from layers of slender lathing, a coiled piece made of flat inflexible lathing, a central trough gouged unnecessarily from a square of ten sheets of 3/4” plywood—these imply a process which contradicts the basic “naturalness” of the materials. Therein lies the “art,” since “process” per se was exhausted on a simplistic level some time ago. And some of the sculpture’s large scale derives from that kinesthetic sense of how long it took to wrap the bound pieces and how independent the materials are. Energy surrounds and enlarges its fields. While weight and density are obviously important, the hidden elements are more provocative. Nail piece, for instance, nine 7’ planks dotted with nails on each face of each plank, is a physical embodiment of aggression, as is the newest work, the gouged or hacked and gradually recessed laminated plywood square, where, however, each gouge mark is plain to see and feel. In nail piece, Winsor was “interested in a feeling of concealed energy. I like the fact that each layer has tons of nails in it that can’t be seen.” It also has an autobiographical core. When she was around nine, her father planned a house and while he was away at work her mother built it. At one point, “my father gave me an enormous bag of nails and left, saying to nail them down to keep the wood in place. I did. . . . and I used the whole bag of nails to do it. The part he told me to nail down needed about a pound of nails. I think I put in about 12 pounds. My father had a fit because I’d used up all his nails. They made such a fuss about it that it left quite an impression on me.” (As did the role model her mother provided for an active female.)

The basic order, or geometry, in Winsor’s work is always thwarted by action or by nature, by the materials’ or the process’ inclinations toward their own identities. Many women artists working with geometry and obsessive repetition (at its extreme, fragmentation), have come into their own by using a rectilinear framework primarily to contradict it, or within which to perpetrate mysterious rituals of process or emotive content. There is a certain pleasure in proving oneself against perfection, or the order that runs the world, despoiling neat edges and angles with “homemade” or natural procedures that relate back to the body and personal experience. Winsor’s bound grid, for example, is a grid, but since the lines are saplings, they are not straight; their natural origins are further stressed by the fact that one of them forks in the center, so that there are 10 poles at the bottom of the piece and 11 at the top, complicating the bound intersections and effectively altering the “real grid.” The ball-like bindings, in turn, despite their lumpy and irregular shapes (some are smaller than others) return a kind of order to the piece by implication; they are “all wrapped up,” complete.*

The “twine” Winsor used is actually hemp, unwound in bunches from much larger rope, then knotted together, a laborious process which takes on a ritual quality in itself (I once helped unwind some, and can attest to the primitive, spinning-wheel monotony of the task). When I first saw Winsor’s work early in 1968, this quality was centered in the image, which was fetishistic. She was working with latex and resin, and the unwound rope she used was fine, like hair. The larger pieces related to body scale, pieces knee-high, waist-high, etc. Then she began working with old, used rope, first covered with resin so it stood up by itself, then less posed, in coils, and rope wound around rope. Then she got hold of some huge rope with which she worked for several years. “I could barely move it, but just dragging it around the studio made it appeal to me much more than the thinner rope.” She was pleased when a delivery man came in and saw double circle, “gave it a tremendous kick and it didn’t budge. . . . He seemed to understand its physical bruteness right away.”

The sensuous, even sexual, properties of a heavy, languid, but willful line also inspired Winsor’s only performance piece, executed in 20 minutes at 112 Greene Street, June 29, 1971. A quarter of a ton of 4” rope was hauled up from one floor to another, through a hole, by a “long, lean male”; below was a “soft, rounded female” who was feeding it up to him. Then the action reversed and the rope was lowered onto the curled-up female until it covered her completely. “What I wanted to bring out was the kinesthetic relationship between the muscularity of the performers and the muscularity of the rope and the changing quality of the rope as it was being moved. The scale and weight of the rope forced the performers to conform to its properties rather than the other way around.”

The performance could be seen from only one of two floors at a time, with the other half suggested. This hermetic aspect appears frequently in Winsor’s work. In brick dome, the bricks are stuck into the cement lengthwise, so only half of them make up the prickly surface, the other half providing a buried core of weight. Fence piece, a pen made of seven layers of lathing nailed inside and out, hides its contained space; you can’t enter it and you can just see into it. Four corners almost succeeds in hiding the square of logs which is its armature, because the corners have been bulbously gigantized by hemp wrapping to the point where the corners are really all there is—a contradiction of the square by an oppressively organic repetition. She has also planned an outdoor piece which echoes the performance, as well as Newfoundland’s underground rock and often domed vegetable cellars. It is to be a brick tower above ground leading to water below ground. “The inside would be accessible only by climbing up the chimney and the bottom half of the outside would be completely inaccessible—underground.” As Liza Béar remarked, “The viewer would have to become physically involved to really experience the piece,” which applies to other works of Winsor’s, though in a sensuous mental rather than strenuous physical fashion.

“Indoors the size of a piece is somewhere between your own body and the scale of the room the piece is made in. And what was good outdoors was that I was much smaller than the surrounding space; that changed the relationship between myself and the environment. . . . The outdoor pieces are so specific.” The two Winsor has been able to execute (two more are planned for Princeton and Fredonia this year) also imply hidden function. 30 to 1 bound trees, made in a “very scrawny kind of area” in Nova Scotia in 1971, were giant bundles of somewhat stunted white birch trees bound singly and then rebound together. If one were to run across them accidentally, they might seem to be some local method of storing wood or winter fodder, some practical problem unknown but efficiently solved. The largest of the Nova Scotia tree series is centered around a live tree. “Otherwise how would this structure that’s 20’ high and 5’ across stand up with the wind blowing over the top of the quarry? It would blow over. They all stabilize each other. As I was making the piece, I got more and more concerned with the fact that the live tree was being nestled inside . . . I saw the live tree as the pivotal part of that work.”

In May, 1972, deep in the lush southern woods outside Richmond, Virginia, with the help of students, Winsor made a spindly “shelter” or high platform of saplings bound close together with unwound rope. Here again, if one came upon the piece it might seem to have been built for an extra-esthetic purpose. Esthetically, however, its relationship to its environment was highly succinct—at once so close to nature, in that the raw materials surrounded the structure made from others like them, and so far from it, in that some of those small trees had been cut down and tied together to make a clearly person-made place. More than most artists’ (especially those who just plunk an indoor sculpture down in a plaza or field), Winsor’s outdoor work is so finely attuned to its natural surroundings that making sculpture outdoors becomes, in turn, a natural process.

Lucy R. Lippard