Winston Chmielinski is a rare breed: a self-taught painter in an industry obsessed with new media. Like fellow autodidact Francis Bacon, he uses a traditional medium (acrylic, and lately, oil) in unconventional ways. Chmielinski reads a lot, travels often, and talks about his work with the authority of someone older than his twenty-three years. He paints in the space between the figurative and the abstract, leaving you, the viewer, to connect the dots. The experience is sensuous but uncanny, a little like watching porn through a fishbowl.
Last November, his first solo show, “Ecstatic Skin,” opened at Envoy Enterprises. Music fans might also recognize his cover art for indie bands The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and PVT. Hidden beneath these surface pyrotechnics is a serious eye for anatomy. In his latest series, he’s shifted his gaze from flesh to flora, giving the impression that a human had passed through the scene like a snail, to gloss Bacon himself. “More and more, I’m turning everything into skin and skin into everything,” he explains from Los Angeles, before heading back to New York for Armory Arts Week, where he’ll have his own booth at Volta NY, a boutique fair showcasing emerging artists. If Chmielinski has managed to stay under the radar this long, it won’t be for much longer.
How’s LA treating you?
Everyone in LA looks so good. I was in a cafe recently behind a very fit man and it prompted me to search for gyms in Boston, so I called this private trainer and talked to someone who couldn’t get the spelling of my last name right because he had vertigo. We kept getting stuck on the letter K.
Are you at liberty to tell us about what you’ll be showing at Volta NY?
Yes, I am. It’s going to be a combination of my most recent paintings and a couple of repeats from “Ecstatic Skin.” But you’re better off seeing them in person.
What always struck me about your work is its ability to capture an essence.
On the one hand, yes, I engage with an image fully and, from the onset, feel totally immersed in it. But on the other, when I trace the image back to its hooks I try not to essentialize anything. I like aberration, extrusion and centrifugality.
So, in a sense, the painting paints itself?
I never took classes in anatomy so in my self-configuration the eye basically goes right to the hand. The processing comes when I take my first step back and start to recognize what is, in a sense, giving energy to the composition and which elements are already dead.
That’s good advice for art school students whose first inclination is to overthink things. I love the way you once described that meticulous “high school brushwork” kids have when they’re starting out.
Yes, it’s the hand trying to escape from the head.
It reminds me of something my mother would say. She was an art student.
My mother is an artist too. I think she recognizes a lot of herself in me, and I’m so grateful I can continue to explore when she had to stop. I’m pathologically independent because my parents were my models growing up.
Speaking of which, I think I saw your parents at the “Ecstatic Skin” show, which was very touching.
They came down from Boston to attend the opening as they’ve done for just about every show I’ve had in NYC. I’ve learned to stop craving understanding because I have support, and that’s more than a lot of my peers can say. I come from a good place.
Well, you have a studio. That’s a start!
Intrepid is a good word for what I am. I definitely think, at this point, I need the (non-) structure of a studio. When I was a baby, though, I was so scared of grass. I would cry if my mother put me down on the lawn.
Did the infinite expanse of green intimidate you?
Grass isn’t soft, it’s sharp! Until you learn to whistle with a blade of grass, there’s no feeling of ownership, or exploit, even. That’s the better word.
It’s funny you say that because that grassy color is now such a consistent feature in your work.
Childhood comes back in myriad ways. I’m a strong believer that who we are is formed very, very early in our lives and that some things are impossible to shake, which is why I’m no longer afraid of erasing who I am by delving deeper into myself. As a kid, my parents gave me a lot of space, sometimes unintentionally, and I got lost very often.
Do you have a routine or at least try to have one?
Everything boils down to habit, which goes to show just how easily our minds suture themselves into structures. If only I had the discipline to tape off a square in my room and make myself invisible.I keep my schedule pretty open, which is to say, I try to stimulate myself into action mode by constantly moving about. I used to reprimand myself for painting so quickly. I also used to flagrantly mismatch metaphors and now I obsess over it.
Yeah, it sucks being a structure troll.
That’s why I don’t write! I actually decided not to pursue writing professionally because I thought up lousy fiction. Also, a fortuneteller in Beijing once told me to paint, not write, so I relay all my psychic faculties into really intuitive reading and that’s enough for me.
Your paintings have a photographic quality about them, which is partly why they’re so uncanny. Do you use photographs or other source images?
I always use some sort of reference. The greatest development in my work has come from a greater sensitivity to the original image. I always ask myself if the image is perfect as it is or if there’s room for me or more.
You’ve been compared to Jenny Saville and Francis Bacon. But as an artist working today, you’re pretty much in a league of your own, not in the least because the idea of painting itself seems so “classical.”
The element of painting that resonates with me the most is its format: flat, rectangular and, usually, positioned on a wall. Another peculiarity is the brush—you can actually put down an image without ever using lines. It’s all simplistically linked, me being a sadistic e-hoarder, an introvert and a painter. I didn’t learn to paint traditionally but I’m steeped in the traditional framework of painting. My paintings have almost no texture.
Would you ever consider experimenting with other media?
I always try to envision the potential for accidents when I consider new things to play around with. I can’t spend ten hours building something up if I can already see the end result. That’s why knitting didn’t work out.
Can you tell us a little about what you’re working on now?
I sense the edge of a plateau. I’m basically moving on to a different grouping of images. Actually, a lot of them were pulled from LA over the past week. The human figure has been my stage since the beginning, so the shifts are subtle but profound. What I want to reference as imagery doesn’t exist, so I have to create my own references, literally configure my own new breed of bodies, but these new configurations are, in my mind, even more essentially human. Unfortunately, visual culture has turned every expanse of skin into something archetypal, and the last thing I want to paint is some collective vision of what it means to be human and alive. Extreme humanism is what I’m vying for—hyperreal as opposed to surreal. Baudrillard devotes the first few chapters of Cool Memories II to this sense of extremity and extreme beauty.
On that note, are there any good books we should be reading?
The Logic of Sensation, which is Gilles Deleuze on Francis Bacon. Professional Secrets, the autobiography of Jean Cocteau. He’s so wonderful at putting his incredible life into wise words, but with such humility. Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, an example of the most amazing character studies! And, of course, Roland Barthes.