Robin Winters

Tyler Gallery

The territory explored in this two-part installation, Leaning Missives/Floating Vessels, 1988, was the playground of the imagination. The missives, black-ink drawings on sheets of 8-by-6-inch galvanized tin, were installed in the gallery’s small entry space, arranged in two evenly spaced sets of 10 and one of 16 and set on shallow, eye-level ledges that traversed three of the room’s walls. The drawings depicted elements from Robin Winter’s familiar pictographic repertoire—quickly rendered, quasi-primitive images of maps, heads, and human or animal figures. While the rows of drawings could have been pages from a thematically unified book, they weren’t intended to convey a cohesive narrative; rather, they built up meaning by way of association and subjective reference, functioning more like postcards from a realm of possible shared fantasy. The backs of the drawings were each painted a bright color—mostly blue, yellow, or red—so that the subtle colored shadows they cast against the wall acted as a counterpoint to the gray and black surfaces of the pieces.

On pedestals placed against the fourth wall of this room, Winters mounted two large glass bottles in the shape of human heads, each full of coins—pennies in one, nickels, dimes and quarters in the other. These heads announced themselves the Lares and Penates of the installation, but elicited numerous other associations: a dual-headed Cerberus guarding the gateway to the lower gallery; children’s savings banks, or any receptacle where a token must be deposited as payment for entry. As was the case with all the glasswork in the show, the heads were hand-blown by the artist, working with glassblower Tracy Glover. This entire exhibition, in fact, was a reminder of Winter’s continuing commitment to collaborative process, as well as of his preferred stance as artist/worker and enduring interest in hybrid art forms.

Floating Vessels, installed in the lower gallery, was a particolored wooden roundabout structure, measuring 28-by-12-by-3-feet, that appeared at first glance like some refugee fragment from a small-town carnival. Its elongated oval, constructed and engineered by sculptor Phil Donovan, was painted according to section in shades of orange, blue, yellow, green, and dark gray, and housed a shallow waterway along which slowly floated a mesmeric cavalcade of small boats and head-shaped bottles—the three-dimensional equivalents of some of Winters’ favorite, recurring ideograms. The highly tactile bottle-heads, some clearly articulated, some pod-shaped and more amorphous, were of varying hues—blue, amber, amethyst, and topaz, as well as clear glass.

The rudimentary boats were made of corrugated cardboard; six bore fragile paper sails inscribed with simple but hermetic symbols. There was a single milky-blue glass sailboat; one bottle contained a moldering drawing; and two upside-down sunken glass boats were submerged at either end of the ellipse’s curve. As these evocative vessels bobbed, bumped, and clinked along on their circular journey they would occasionally clog up, obstructing each other’s passage until freed by a spectator’s hand. A small, low glass table flanked by glass heads stood against one wall as a stand for a cassette deck that played a selection of Indian, Greek, and Egyptian songs, augmenting the roundelay with music.

Floating Vessels’ air of delightful, childlike gaiety, however, masked a more serious subtext. This fantasy canal, somewhat like the city of Venice, which it also recalled, was festive but melancholy. It offered itself as a well of metaphors for the circuit of life—an endless and repeating series of meetings, departures, and passages, from the baptismal font to the marriage procession and the funeral cortege. Winters speaks of reinstating poetry as a value in art. Here, vernacular references intersected with cultural myth and the power of the individual subconscious, resulting in a view of life (and art) that was simultaneously romantic, idealistic, and humanistic.

Paula Marincola