New York

Neil Winokur

Barbara Toll Fine Arts

Despite their scenting lightheartedness, Neil Winokur's photographic portraits underline the close relationship between portraiture and funerary art. In these multipanel works a relatively straightforward photograph of the subject is accompanied by close-ups of various objects selected by the sitter, presumably for their personal significance. In earlier works Winokur had presented these panels in various arrangements—stacked like a totem pole, with the image of the person at the top and the accompanying photos of objects below; or arranged like a pyramid or like a cross, again with the person at the top. In the works shown here he has adopted a standard format, with the subject in a large central panel flanked by smaller panels depicting the associated objects. This arrangement suggests a Renaissance altarpiece, with the central Madonna and Child or crucifixion surrounded by smaller narrative panels. All of these arrangements bring with them associations of ceremonial, and specifically religious, commemoration. There's even an echo from a more distant past—that of ancient tombs, in which rulers would be surrounded by favored mementoes of their lives, as well as provisions for the journey after death.

Of course these associations also seem a little funny, given that the people in the photographs appear to be relatively well-to-do, middle-class Americans. In several of the portraits the sitters appear amused at being the subjects of Winokur's glorification, apparently recognizing its humorous absurdity. (The self-deprecating quality of Winokur's subjects is very unlike, say, the air of condescension so common in Clegg and Guttmann's pompous photo-portraits.)

The particular objects that the subjects have chosen further humanize the grandiose implications of Winokur's format. In one case, for example, a smiling woman (a museum curator) is surrounded by close-ups of a vase of flowers, a dog-eared paperback copy of Middlemarch, a recording of Mozart, and a matted photograph. In another, a man is accompanied by photos of, among other things, an arrangement of two golf balls and a tennis ball, a copy of a real-estate book, and a series of family snapshots. What's remarkable in all of these pictures is how banal most of the objects are. The format that Winokur uses would seem to lend itself readily to heroizing, but in fact the images the sitters construct of themselves, both through their poses and in their selection of emblematic objects to represent their interests, are for the most part smoothly neutral, obviously intended for public consumption. In environmental portraits by Walker Evans or Wright Morris, the decor of a room, the odds and ends on a dresser top, the calendar over a stove would all reveal something about the people who lived with them. In Winokur's pictures, though, the objects the person designates as significant tell us little about him or her. Instead they form a kind of mask, a defensive screen of style like that provided by clothing. These are polite portraits of apparently modest people.

As in his earlier portraits, Winokur continues to place brightly colored backdrops behind both the sitters and their chosen artifacts, giving the pictures a kicky artificiality. In earlier series he combined this with frontal lighting and tightly framed poses to give his sitters a stunned, almost waxen appearance, turning them into caricatures of themselves. Here he surrounds his sitters with more space within the frame, presenting them in half-length portraits, and in far more relaxed poses. Even so, the pictures do not penetrate at all deeply into the personalities of the people in them. If anything, they deny the possibility of making a portrait adequate to the complexity of a life, and imply that portraiture is of necessity fictional.

Charles Hagen