Recent neurophysiological research suggests that comprehension of metaphors is grounded in sensory perception. Robin Winters’ Free Standing Sentence, now on view at Present Company in Bushwick, supports this idea. A daydream incarnate, this collection of words, pictures, and objects is an illustrated poem that is engaged by the walking viewer. While the body of the viewer in the gallery or museum is generally considered only as he or she pivots between various static points of contemplation (we call it “looking at art”), Free Standing Sentence is a show by and for the pedestrian, the stroller, the flaneur, who looks, thinks, and creates associations as s/he moves through (and is moved by) the world.
On ViewPresent Company
November 13, 2015 – January 17, 2016
The converted industrial space occupied by Present Company is elevated from street level at loading-dock height. A continuous shelf lines three walls of the gallery and is arranged with small sculptures, drawings, and slips of paper printed with imaginary place names, poems, and stories. In the right hand corner sit two life-size collie dog mannequins, now a bit shabby but dressed for the occasion in hand-blown glass hats.
Five paintings on paper (the largest works on view besides the dogs) are hung below the shelf of objects, perhaps at dog’s eye view. This would be fitting for Winters, creator and performer of many characters including Bob E., who tried in vain to make small monuments for everyone in the world. These low-hung portraits depict symbolic heads—and one tree—floating in alternating colored washes. One head floating above a black, bean-shaped body wears a pointed pink hat. His caption, on a lavender slip of paper says, “I will make you rich.” He is clearly a fool.
Even before one takes in the dogs and the low hanging portraits, it is likely that s/he has spent some time tracing the ledge, reading, walking, and looking. The journey is punctuated by imaginary place names: Island of Bad Sandwiches, Comparative Forest, Straights of Loose Screws, printed in half-inch sans serif type on slips of paper and washed with a bit of watercolor. They are arranged in staggered formation with longer bits of prose poems and snippets of stories set in slightly smaller type. Memories, imagined places and dreamscapes, or more likely some combination of the three, together, they form a portrait of the artist as a man who has moved through the world as a shaman and a laborer of art, constantly producing as if it were piecework.
Free Standing Sentence is a display of the archetypes that fill the artist’s mind, given physical presence in the form of printed words, images, and figurines. Like all dreams, its symbolism is personal as well as collective: recast toy bunny heads, ceramic leaves with a light splattering of glaze, figurines wearing small paper hats, miniatures of classical baroque sculptures, a sculpture of the artist himself, beard flowing, palms together in front of his heart. The portraits and landscapes are deceptively simple, fronts for endless association. One is a green cartoon head, the next a gas station in the middle of nowhere, all seemingly achieved in a few strokes, and likely calling up different meanings for each viewer. Poems and drawings are free standing on cardholder pins stuck in colored play dough. Some items are stacked on brightly painted blocks of wood to bring them to satisfactory height in relation to adjacent objects.
Since the 1970s, Winters’ performances and installations have often depended on direct participation from his audiences. While Free Standing Sentence is neither a live performance nor an obvious manifestation of Relational Aesthetics, it is in every way relational. Objects, words, and images are each self-contained instances, yet their meaning arises in the spaces between and around them. And because the specifics of personal memory are always set in history, global events seep in. The show opened on November 13, the night of the coordinated attacks in Paris. A poem perched on red play dough moorings stacked on a block of wood painted International Orange reads:
I am thinking of a time I was in Paris it was early morning and the rooftops were wet / Morning fog and a stray goat in the street a picture etched ineffable and complete / My life is made of these capsules not all sweet some dark like poison water
The poem would have meant something different the day before because, as the scientists discovered, recognition of metaphor is based in embodied experience. Likewise, each image, sculpture, and phrase arranged in Free Standing Sentence is a dependent clause, waiting to be activated (like a dog waits for a seat at the dining table) in the mind of the walking viewer.