Seeing a screen and a slide projector set up in Room 510 is unusual for Poetry Forum gatherings at The New School, but we had artist Trevor Winkfield to visit Tuesday night, and of course, seeing the work is its best introduction. John Ashbery says, paraphrasing Walter Pater, “If all art aspires toward the condition of music as Pater wrote, Trevor Winkfield must be counted among the most successful artists of all time.” (Check out Trevor’s website here. )
An attitude of
precise methodical whimsy pervades his work, and it was especially illuminating
to listen to a painter who is also a writer who has collaborated with
poets. In his introduction, New School poetry coordinator David
Lehman (above, right, with Winkfield, left) explained that he and colleagues believe in the inter-dependency of the
arts, and that if you’re looking for inspiration, “It makes as much sense to
expose yourself to painting as to poetry.”
Trevor Winkfield has collaborated with Ashbery, John Yau and Ron Padgett among others. Exact Change Books recently re-published the Winkfield's translation of Raymond Roussel’s How I Wrote Certain of My Works. Winkfield has collected his writings in In the Scissors’ Courtyard and his art in Pageant.
At the beginning of his talk, Trevor tackled exactly that: How to begin. The problem -- “Where to
place the first mark on a canvas, and what it should represent” – is a problem for poets as well. The speaker also noted the special blessing (which doubles as a challenge) for artists and poets – unlike ballerinas, they have or can have life-long careers. That’s the blessing. The challenge is how to keep developing and coming up with fresh ideas. He made the comparison to Scheherazade, who, in the Arabian Nights, is constantly in mortal danger if her powers of invention fail her. Winkfield warned against what he called the Marc Chagall effect -- the endless repetition of motifs from the start of one’s career. The room tittered at that -- it’s always fun to poke fun at one of the "big names."
Born in 1944, Winkfield
recollected his childhood in Leeds, England,
which was still in the grip of austerity after the war. No T.V., long
walks as one of the chief recreations, miserable weather (“bone-chilling
cold”), and gas lamps: “The calendar might read 1950, but it felt more like
1910.” The scarcity of paper “made one careful of what marks you put on it.” So
his artwork turned toward the fastidious, and toward graphic design.
From early on, he felt unwilling to accept the world as given. There are, he said, two sorts of people, “those who accept the world , and those -- I think there are many in this room -- who create a world.”
When he was eleven, he discovered heraldry and was fascinated by its intricacy, and how the arcane designs were full of meanings and seemed to be composed of a “secret language.” it was his first exposure to poetry -- a way to describe the world that wasn’t purely pedestrian.
Then came a time when he was dissatisfied with his work. He left art college in 1967 and became a writer. In 1976 -- he had emigrated to the States by this time -- he went to a Richard Tuttle exhibit and felt re-invigorated. He soon began working in acrylics, enjoying the flatness they provided as well as the intense color. Trevor said that these first art works were small enough to fit in his suitcase. Also, he noted that until quite recently, English art tended to the smaller while American art tended toward the large -- a function of the different landscapes, perhaps. (“English painting is an art of comment; American painting is an art of statement.”)
The English landscape after thousands of years of intense human habitation has a more comfortable feeling, even cozy. The American landscape is large “Once you get out of the cities, it’s quite overwhelming.”
Drawing on the style of heraldic art, and the intense colors he saw in medieval stained glass in York Cathedral, near where he grew up, Winkfield began to imagine his own art. Most of the artwork he had been exposed to was in the form of small reproductions -- postcards and the like. “My ambition (became) to give painting the feel of reproductions, so that it will appear as real in life as in magazines.”
Trevor said that it can take him quite a while to complete a piece. He starts with some image that he reproduces on paper, then he cuts that out and places it on the eventual canvas. Once he has one image, others tend to flow from that: “The first image calls forth the second, and so forth.
“Not every object means something. Just as with writing: individual words don’t have meanings, sentences do.”
He is often asked -- especially in the US -- What does it mean? In Europe, people seem more comfortable with ambiguity. Following the presentation, David playfully asked, “So, what does it mean?” The painter responded with a vigorous “No comment.” But he did refer to an idea of Marcel Duchamp: that it’s the spectator who completes the painting. The painting of the recent past will inevitably change how spectators view art.
David asked Trevor how he meets the challenge of re-inventing himself.
“It occurs after I’ve had a show. It's a fatal mistake not to exhibit, despite the horror of exhibiting.” He explained that when he sees his work all gathered together he can see something he’d like to change or improve or new ideas that he’d like to explore. David likened the publication of a book by a poet to an exhibition – and also noted that the deadline pressure often gets you to finish projects.
-- Meg McGuire