The Thrum and The Thrall
MARLBOROUGH CONTEMPORARY | MARCH 22 – APRIL 28, 2018
In The Thrum and The Thrall, writing desks, drawings, taxidermy dogs, hatboxes, glass heads, and other sundry artworks crowd the viewing room at Marlborough Contemporary. Viewers must wind their way through a labyrinth that amounts to a small retrospective of Robin Winters’s long and varied career. Each piece points to another facet of his incredibly diverse practice. The red thread that would make sense of it all lies beyond reach, or so it might seem to anyone unfamiliar with Winters’s life story. His work has always mapped the complex pathways from the private to the public and back, through object making, performance, and collective action. Focusing on both intrapersonal and interpersonal experience, his art exceeds the purely social sphere of relational aesthetics to which critics have often linked him. To truly understand his art is to see that, for Winters, not only is there no separation between life and art, but that making art is an essential activity that binds together the motivations for living: love and work. His challenge to us is to take art that seriously. A wealth of imagery in The Thrum and The Thrall—banners, hats, and drawings—points to his thinking about art as a fundamental medium of exchange between groups and individuals.
The entrance to The Thrum and The Thrall is as good a place as any to start unpacking Winters’s wunderkammer of an exhibition. It has a hanging silkscreen print that faces both in and out of the space, bearing the poetic title The Real Artist Carves Their Dreams in Leaves as They Fall from the Trees, (1986). On both sides are printed the same series of heads and objects, lined up in rows and columns. The images are characteristically Wintersesque with their unsettling mixture of cartoon-like whimsy and bizarre details, such as a woman who wears what appears to be an ape for a hat. The effect derails any attempts to fall back on narratives that would make the images more digestible. Putting each image—be it prosaic, silly, strange, or even sinister—on a par with all the others, Winters passes no judgments but simply bears witness to the dreams of others, as the title of the work suggests. This affirmation, a witnessing through art, is the very process where seeing into the lives of others takes place.
Bearing in mind the role of the artist as witness, the story behind two artworks against the south wall of the space—Hat Boxes from “The Secret Life of Bob-E or Bob-E Behind the Veil,” 1/2, 1974, and Hat Boxes from “The Secret Life of Bob-E or Bob-E Behind the Veil,” 2/2, 1974 —may shed some light on Winters’s fascination with hats. The hatboxes are the byproduct of a performance piece Winters did in 1974. Working on the blind side of a one-way mirror, his alter ego, Bob-E (Bob Everybody?), worked regular eight-hour shifts over the period of a month to make a series of blue and yellow hats as monuments dedicated to everyone in the world. Hats contain heads, which of course contain thoughts, the wellsprings of interiority. Monuments are intended to memorialize, which is to say bear public witness, to a person or an event. However, with the one-way mirror, Winters’s performance made the private activity of Bob-E public, while maintaining the anonymity of the viewing public. Through this inversion, Bob-E’s activity became the public/private exchange where the reality of inner life could take place between everyone. His regular work hours brought Bob-E’s art activity into the realm of labor—in this case a labor of love.
Love, or more precisely, devotion figures prominently in the most moving piece in the show, Night Stand, 2018. It is an installation for a performance, made of two side-by-side writing desks, each decorated with a bronze totemic head, and two chairs facing diagonally. The drawers in each table are slightly open, revealing papers within. Next to each chair is a faithful stuffed dog with a glass hat, because dogs have inner lives too. According the Marlborough Contemporary press release, “Winters … will add … four drawings yearly to go into the drawers of the tables. This drawing addition contribution will continue until the artist’s demise or until the artist is no longer either physically or mentally able to contribute new works.” In this performance work, Winters is making a contract to continue sharing with everyone his latest drawings, the fresh products of his interiority, for as long as he can.
However, there are two desks with drawers and seats, not one. Winters is offering us the chance to share our inner lives with him. It is up to each of us to meet him there.
HOVEY BROCK is an artist and has an MFA from the School of Visual Arts Art Practice program. He is a frequent contributor to Artseen.