Richard Wincer is an unusual artist these days. He is someone who not only believes in the power of art to transfigure the everyday world but requires his work to do it. I first encountered his work in the mid-eighties, more than a decade after he had left Goldsmith’s. which was just beginning to acquire its reputation as a hot house for the avant-garde. Wincer was never going to be part of that set but nevertheless his work was noticed by several influential members of the art world. In 1980 he was included in the Summer Show at the Serpentine Gallery, chosen by Tony Carter, which at that time was an important showcase for young artists emerging on the scene. A few years later he was included in The Sculpture Show at the Hayward at a time when young British Sculpture was very much in the news. Much of the work in that show was entertaining and some of it can be seen as prefiguring what came to be known as postmodern irony. The fact that Wincer’s work was so unlike anything else there was just one of the reasons why it attracted attention. It was raw and odd and powerful – the kind of work which may have made some people uncomfortable but which was not easy to forget.
Stepping inside his Hut on the terrace of the Hayward was to enter a space which felt as if it had been sealed off from the twentieth century. Inside was conjured a preternatural world, seemingly dredged from the beginning of time. In the centre stood a pedestal bearing a Tree of Life, that ancient symbol of the interconnectness of all things living. Unlike many representations which show a gnarled old tree, his tree seemed young. It was simple and straight with only a few branches with serried rows of pointed leaves. It was a little like a candelabra, or at least had a ceremonial feel about it. Around the walls were painted isolated naked figures standing in a desert landscape, while beneath them shadowy fish swam in their parallel world of water.
A couple of years later he took a job as a window cleaner and used what many would consider to be a monotonous way of earning a living as a springboard to create some astonishing figures. The Three Shiners are clad in overalls. They have block-like feet and brandish creased lumps, which are more like rocks that cleaning cloths. Each face is different but the features are all primitive and impassive and each is surrounded by a decorative circlet depicting the sun, the moon and the stars. Part gods, part proletarian workers, these figures recalled the buffoonery of Alfred Jarry, without the viciousness.
Included in the same show was a work which is arguably the most spectacular thing he has made. The Gold Oak Leaf Jacket is what it says it is: a jacket made of oak leaves which have been dipped in resin and then painted a soft gold. It would belong to a man larger than normal but it has been hung on a wire hanger and then encased in a dark wooden box. The effect is at once medieval and fiercely modern. In the version of Hut, which he showed at the Garden festival at Stoke on Trent, a glittering figure wore a similar jacket of leaves but, rather charmingly, an ordinary shirt underneath.
The original title of the oak leaf jacket wasThe Englishness of English art, which makes clear how the artist places himself within the tradition of English art, which is rooted in a response to the natural world. The glory of the oak tree is self-evident and it is not surprising that other places in the world also see it as a symbol of strength and endurance. It had a special place in Greek mythology: deemed sacred to Zeus, the priests at his oracle would seek to divine the god’s pronouncements by listening to the rustling of the leaves. It does not seem fanciful to see these golden leaves as also having a magical quality. This jacket is unlike anything else I have seen made by a contemporary artist. It is a triumphant and beautiful object.
It is also possible to link it to the representations of the Green Man, those bellicose faces sprouting twigs and leaves, which occur in some parish churches. Although no one knows for sure exactly what they are intended to signify, they are commonly assumed to be personifications of the cycle of growth in the Spring. Wincer’s leafy clothes may be related to this idea but perhaps only obliquely. What I think is clear is that he has a belief in another reality, which is not divorced from the appearance of the natural world but is more like a parallel flow which sustains the meaning of that appearance. And it is this sense of pantheistic awe at the power and immensity of the universe, which provides the connecting link which runs throughout his work.
When he left London and moved to Hebden Bridge, he realised that it was the countryside that was most likely to allow him access to the kind of spiritual truthfulness which he found imperative. But it was not a question of going outside and painting what he saw. Rather it was to do with finding a way of tapping into that deep resource of feelings accumulated throughout his life, starting when he was a child exploring the countryside in Worcestershire.
Water recurs in the paintings and is seen as a powerful and at times potentially destructive force. He makes us aware of the sense of life within it and the varying strength of its flow. When he is painting, often the paint will be quite liquid. He applies it intuitively, making use of its own particular qualities, both its wateriness and at times its opacity. Layers will be built up, wiped away, then reapplied as he ‘feels his way around the surface’, to use his words. For a period he worked abstractly concentrating purely on form and colour. Now however, in a reversal of the procedures of early modernism, in which artists gradually stripped away the literal appearance of the world, he is beginning to find ways of using these abstract configurations to suggest parts of the landscape. A large slab of inflected cobalt and purples becomes a cliff side when a row of little houses perched on the summit is swiftly picked out. A single tiny figure serves further to emphasise the wildness of the landscape and the immensity of the sky above. But these are not real places. Rather they are invocations which allow us to use our knowledge of the appearance of the world to get a glimpse of a kind of spiritual truth as he sees it.
Woodcuts are a well established genre in the British Romantic tradition and it is one which suits his talents very well. He is a craftsman and in many ways it seems that wood is his most natural medium. The painstaking process of carving the image onto the surface of the wood, before inking up, seems curiously well suited to conveying the emotional impact of his imagination. A single fish makes its way through the water, the grain of the wood vividly suggesting the shadows of the surrounding depths. Most memorable is the way in which the natural circles which show the growth of a tree have been used to create the crescendo of Tidal Wave, which becomes a world of its own, peopled by huge fish and a small church.
He has always loved fishing and will go off for the day whenever he can. He likes the solitariness of it; there is nothing to distract him from where he is and what he is doing. In an earlier piece of sculpture, he carved a large fishing net with a hooked fish, twisting wildly within it. At the top stands the fisherman, who is the same size as the fish. They are joined mouth to mouth, so that the line becomes a kind of umbilical cord. This piece seems to encapsulate the strength to be gained from looking at his work; it enhances our awareness of the state of being alive. This is what art can do for us and we should make the most of it.
All images © 2007 - 2013 Richard Wincer.