Sunday, January 1st, 2006

Christopher Winter: Virgin Forest

Edelman Arts at Salander-O’Reilly
20 East 79th Street
New York

January 7-31, 2006

This review first appeared in The New York Sun, January 12, 2006.

Christopher Winter The Shadow 2005 acrylic on canvas, 55-1/8 x 78-3/4 inches Courtesy Salander-O'Reilly Galleries
Christopher Winter, The Shadow 2005 acrylic on canvas, 55-1/8 x 78-3/4 inches Courtesy Salander-O'Reilly Galleries

SALANDER-O’REILLY IS SHOWCASING CHRISTOPHER WINTER’S Bavarian kinder kitsch as a courtesy to Asher Edelman, mega-collector. Described by the Wall Street Journal in 1998 as “one of the most notorious raiders on Wall Street in the 1980s,” Mr. Edelman once taught a business course at Columbia University called “The Art of War.” As Thomas Kamm reported, he offered $100,000 to any student who would identify a takeover target for him. (Columbia banned the offer.) The Association of Trial Lawyers of America, in the October 2002 issue of its journal “TRIAL,” discussed the fierce legal battle between Mr. Edelman and the Société du Louvre, the main subsidiary of Groupe Taittinger (of champagne and Baccarat fame), which claimed he wrongfully manipulated the market for the company’s securities.

Why does this matter in an art review? Because the sensibilities of speculator-collectors determine the character of what we think of as contemporary art. Going by Mr. Edelman’s well-known business history, it is a reasonable guess—though only a guess—that Edelman Arts is long Christopher Winter. Of interest here, apart from the mechanics of cultural influence, are the qualities of mind on show.

Mr. Winter would be a YBA (vernacular for Young British Artist) if he were not an expat Brit who lives and works in Berlin. At 37, he is friendly with Saatchi’s Sensation crew but, as the press release croons, he has “advanced to the company of such painterly heavyweights as Markus Lupertz and Gerhard Richter.” If that does not bring you to your knees, maybe mention of Joseph Beuys will do the trick. The gallery wants us to know that the painter’s Düsseldorf mentor, Fred Schwegler, was a protégé of the sinister Beuys.

Mr. Winter’s cartoony “Virgin Forest” series substitutes disconnected allusions for coherent content. It alludes to a welter of things without being “about” anything substantive beyond the commissioned rhetoric of a catalog essay. Many of the paintings would be meaningless viewed singly. What could you make of two birds pecking at a disembodied eyeball if you had not seen that scrap of printed green cloth elsewhere on its wearer? (The paintings are not sequential but the costumes are repetitive.)

Among Mr. Winter’s sources of allusion are horror movies. Rewind to “The Shining,” “Jaws,” and “The Blair Witch Project” for several canvases. Other obvious spurs to imagery are Caravaggio, Balthus, Caspar David Friedrich, Andrew Wyeth, comic books, graphic novels and photos from the 1950s. The show is a jumble of suggestive appropriations carefully outlined and laid down in flat acrylic color, mainly brash green and black. This “synthesis of visual similes” bears the same relation to painting that watery Eschwege Pils bears to the great unfiltered kellerbiers of Wurzburg.

Take “Neverland” (2005), where a diluted Balthus meets Hänsel and Gretel. A grinning boy in lederhosen and feathered alpine hat joins an underage St. Pauli girl in the Bavarian Alps. Mouths agape, they are poised to tuck into an hallucinogenic mushroom as if it were a Black Forest torte. An ersatz pastoral, the scene would be perfect behind the bar at the Pfefferberg in Berlin’s Mitte district. On offer at Salander-O’Reilly, and buttressed by the hired appreciations of Charles A. Riley II, PhD., it looks like a bid for disposable American income.

Then there’s “The Shadow” (2005). Hänsel lies on the ground face up, his head between the legs of Gretel who doubles over like a trollop-in-training, tush to the spectator. One leg is unaccountably smeared with a blood-like shadow. Menstruation? Rape with a broken bottle? Who knows. But as if to illustrate “the binary code of pastoral and satire,” her underpants are clean.

You only need to look at one of these paintings to know which way the trolley is headed: Innocence is a myth. So corrupt the little ones as soon as possible. They’ll eat it up. No one is too young to die, sleep with snakes, play with drugs, sex or violence. Get with it, dude. Didn’t you read the catalog essay? This what the artist calls “discovery and experimentation from a child’s point of view.”

Mr. Riley II places the artist in the company of Archimedes, Juvenal, Lucilius, Horace, Chaucer, Swift, Dryden, Pope, Evelyn Waugh, Kingsley Amis, Alfred Hitchcock and the Brothers Grimm. Then there’s Theocritus, Vergil, Ovid, Dante, Sidney, Tasso, William Blake, Shakespeare,Thomas Gray and Wordsworth; plus the operas of Monteverdi, Gluck, Mozart, Wagner and Benjamin Britten. Names keep coming: Poussin, Michelangelo, Holbein,Velazquez, Georgione, Guarcino, Reynolds, Watteau, Fragonard, Boucher, Kandinsky, Balthus and Courbet. These are all “worthy antecedents to Winter.”

The lunatic grandiosity of the essay banks on the lack of sophistication of its audience (“These are weighty comparisons for a newcomer.”). A single glance at the actual source for any one of these canvases tells us the name of the game: Read my allusions, not my painting.

Winter’s current series balances the right degree of slick graphic clarity, burlesque and coy nastiness to appeal to today’s breed of bottom-feeding collectors. Adept at tropes of arrested adolescence and the pasteurized irony that has become an art industry staple, he works a trendy dead end. No culture can cannibalize itself—mocking everything, affirming nothing—and continue to survive. If smart-ass nihilism is your stein of Oettinger, you will be able to swallow this show.

The exhibition draws attention because of the prominence of its promoter and the prestige of the venue. But a durable culture requires more than what Croesus’s wallet dictates. At stake is our ability to retrieve a sense of public reason—call it the common good—distinct from market cunning.