Los Angeles

Winston Newport

Modern Objects

The name Winston Newport represents Los Angeles artist Eric Magnuson’s “Late Modernist” persona. It is also a semiotic construct that he uses to signify a specific methodological practice of co-optation. With its reference to cigarette brand names and Hollywood-style packaging, the name suggests a large Modernist corporation that produces and markets art objects for mass consumption. The objective is to cement Newport and Modernism as firmly together as Jeff Koons and Nike sportswear or Daniel Buren and vertical stripes. The irony, of course, is that no one has heard of Newport, far less “his” alter ego, Eric Magnuson, so that the packaging of the packager takes on the characteristics of playful deconstruction rather than rhetorical reification.

In an exhibition entitled “Late Work” Newport presented a series of paintings, photographs, and fabric compositions, all from 1986 and ’87, that draw upon the tenets of Constructivist and de Stijl abstraction while recontextualizing them within the populist ideology of television, graphics, and fashion media. Thus what seem at first glance to be pure simulations of formalist paintings actually turn out to be second- and third-generation co-optations filtered through other conceptual systems entirely. The most obvious examples are Crossword Puzzle Composition #1 and #3, both 1987, in which Mondrian-like grids are the models for the structural design of this popular pastime. Significantly, Newport omits both numbered clues and possible solutions, so that the linguistic sign remains stylistically pure yet semiotically ambiguous. Similarly, in Untitled Color Chart Composition, 1986, Modernist abstraction suddenly becomes the theoretical esthetic prototype for a Kodak photographic color chart. We immediately begin to read the work as a debasement of Modernist painting’s transcendental or estranging aspirations into that of a utilitarian mechanical reproduction. Closer examination discloses that what initially appeared to be painterly texture actually turns out to be real colored fabric. The material metaphor of painting-as-design is thus misread through the conceptual vocabulary of photography, only to be re-revealed as functioning interior design.

Newport’s ability to re-edit and reconstitute Modernist sources into workaday and leisure contexts is best exemplified by a series of three black-and-white paintings of computer scrap lettering each called Untitled Graphic Composition in Paint, 1986. Here, randomly floating letters were first blown up to create chaotic “linguistic” wall decorations, as if to underline the arbitrary nature of the floating signifier. The letters were then cut up into strips and reordered as a form of structured chaos, only to be arbitrarily reformatted once again as a grid—a chaotic ordering of ordered chaos! Even the most complex, aleatory semiotic system can thus be reduced to an artificial construct, dictated by context and function.

The title “Late Work” therefore seems to take on added connotations, symbolizing not only the wrapping up of a particular stage in Newport’s oeuvre, but also the death of late Modernism as a vital esthetic force. Both Newport and the 20th-century avant-garde have been reduced to so many manipulable props on a semantic stage dictated by conspicuous consumption, each waiting for the next media system to give it new “meaning” and significance. This review fulfills the next logical step in the process, culminating in its slot in a photocopy of the artist’s resume. As Winston Newport takes his place as a dead historical phenomenon, returned to language as a bibliographical reference, so Eric Magnuson will presumably be freed to do something “new.”

Colin Gardner