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Alberto Mugnaini

The Grain of the Gaze

[Translated by Karen Tomatis]


Leafing through a publication with reproductions of Paul Winstanley’s paintings is disorientating and puts us in a state of suspension and uncertainty about the nature of the pictures we are observing. His works are open to multiple perspectives of interpretation and highlight all the ambiguities that accompany our conflicting relationship with images.His biography informs us that, after an upbringing in the wake of abstract modernism, Winstanley devoted himself to the development of “a new visual language, combining the tenets of minimalism with the pictorialism of photography”. What is this “combination” about? Specifying that his paintings mainly derive from photographic shots is not enough to account for all the complexity and conceptual subtlety of his work. How does this transition take place? What emerges in his transpositions?The artist himself provides an observation angle. In his book entitled 59 Paintings, published in 2018, he reflects on the processes involved in both the theoretical and practical aspects of his work. By examining In the City, an oil on linen from 2011, he attempts to focus on the difference between picture and painting. The former term considers the image and representation pre-eminent; the latter implies and emphasises the consistency of the painting as an object, a characteristic that the presence of the frame masks and dissimulates, separating it conceptually from the physical space of the wall on which it hangs. Now, if there is no doubt that Winstanley’s works are paintings, and that they reject the expedient of being framed, occasionally, as in the case of this specific painting, the term picture may also be fitting, in that it may be the framing of the image itself that surrogates the role of an actual frame.In any case, there is no transitive relationship between a photograph and the painting that can derive from it; and often, the artist warns us, it is precisely a bad photograph that is the starting point for a satisfying painting. But already the act of photographing must attempt to capture the prominent aspects of a place: it must strive to find the most suitable ways to make accessible and eloquent even spaces that at first glance appear “ungraspable,” distant, obtuse, closed in on themselves. One solution, for example, might be to make landscapes lively and vibrant by photographing them from a car in motion... But, once a photograph has been taken and has been selected, what is the task that is entrusted to painting? The last thing that might be asked of it is to repeat, trace, or reflect the literalness of the photograph from which it takes its cue. It is as if the image in question were about to undergo a new development, understanding this term both in its meaning related to the photographic process and in the sense of a new and totally unprecedented achievement. The task of painting will thus be to implement what remains unexpressed in the photo: to capture that something that constitutes the distinctive note of a space, a certain light quality, those aspects, in short, that in Winstanley’s words constitute the grandeur of a landscape. It is a narrative of that which is unspoken in a photograph: who knows, perhaps it is a matter of embodying that unthought that lurks in our subconscious while we look at a shot depicting an interior or a natural landscape.Between the real environment, the object (or perhaps pretext?) of representation, its photographic rendering, and its pictorial transposition, a boundless play of interrelations, transitions and transfigurations unfolds. We find ourselves entangled in a weave of gazes, of several gazes: ours, that of the artist (whose vision, in his dual photographer-painter identity, splits and doubles), and sometimes also that of the spectators portrayed in the painting, in turn often caught in the act of looking at other paintings hanging on the walls: a dizzying play of mirroring, cross-references, echoes, and shifts of meaning.Even the concept of representation in these cases proves inadequate: this is a painting that does not so much aim to represent something as to distil the idea of the subject represented, to bring out its innermost essence, to embody its abstract potential to define itself as an unrelated image, in its own right, its location along the picture and painting interface. And, with respect to the photograph that constitutes its origin, what this painting seeks to make visible is precisely what remains invisible in photography. This without losing its texture, its luminist and chromatic articulation, and its impalpable tactility: it is precisely through these qualities that painting reveals a new perspective and introduces us to its personal discourse, articulated on several levels. It is as if tactility impregnates our very vision, vaporising in the rustle of the gaze, as if our own gaze discovered within itself a meteorological consistency, a kind of grain.In the transition from photo to painting, we witness a kind of luministic short-circuit: the image comes to life through this prolonged, doubled, perhaps tripled exposure to light: the light that was captured by the photographic emulsion, obviously; the light rendered by the pigments and brushstrokes, of course; but also factor the effects of that light that is not directly detectable and of which no trace remains, but which conditions and determines the luministic quality of the painting: the light of lighting system of the studio in which the paintings, by superimposition of very thin layers, slowly come to life. The quality of the studio’s artificial light is crucial for the further development we have mentioned, and must be absolutely identical to natural light.In addition to the dialectic between picture and painting, we must also note another polarity in the reading of Winstanley’s works: that between peinture (i.e. the linguistic modalities according to which the pictorial surface is articulated, the syntactic peculiarities of the composition) and tableau (a term that refers to what the painted scene tells us, suggests to us, reminds us of). As far as the spatial articulation of the peinture is concerned, we witness a dynamic dialectic of surfaces, which also depends on the choice of the support, which can be a rough, thick canvas or a smooth wooden panel: if panels are better suited for interiors, limited to the wall and floor intersections, so that the surface is broken up into minimal squares, the paintings on canvas traditionally recall more animated and windy scenes, images captured on the move, or glimpses of gardens and woods that seem to be experiencing a slight rustling of foliage, or a trembling ripple of breezes and mists.Winstanley’s practice is thus articulated by consecutive superimpositions of very light layers of paint, a process that recalls that of one of his great models, Vermeer. Precisely because of this procedural slowness, in his studio he keeps what could be defined as an “inventory-painting-paste,” hundreds of small oil colour agglomerates left to dry and occasionally reused by removing their outer dry layer, creating an archive of the chromatic memory of his paintings in progress.Up to this point the aspects we have examined were connected to the formal and conceptual sphere of the act of painting, which is linked to the artist’s decidedly minimal imprinting; the implications of the painting as tableau emerge on the other hand in terms of experience, memory, atmospheres, a silent tale of absences, nostalgia, and ghosts. The deserted studios, the empty waiting rooms, a sense of suspension, of waiting, of estrangement. Human presences, when they reveal themselves in the painting, are elusive figures, often seen from behind, sometimes vaporised in their trails of movement, almost always intent on looking at something, intercepting and prolonging the axis of our own gaze. In addition to these spaces, furnished, designed according to inevitable geometric modules, we then find evoked the spaces of nature, more rugged and rough, whether moors or birch forests, marshy plains or mountain slopes: we perceive them on the canvas as if filtered by a sort of atmospheric dust; the gaze slips over them (or perhaps it is the images which slip, refusing to stop), and then also gets caught up in them, lingers in them, sinks into them, as if it leafed through each individual film of paint: as if instead of movements and oscillations of the brush, these tree barks and this vegetation were originated by a butterfly’s wing beat, or directly by the blinking of our eyes.

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