In his "flat stuff" paintings, sculptor Lester Van Winkle explores the funny business of being.
"All My Shirts Are Green: Flat Stuff by Lester Van Winkle"
Main Art Gallery
Through June 30 Lester Van Winkle is best known in the Richmond art community as a revered professor in Virginia Commonwealth University's sculpture department, where he has inspired many students over the years with his salty philosophical style. "All My Shirts Are Green: Flat Stuff by Lester Van Winkle," an exhibition of his latest work at Main Art Gallery, expresses that attitude in vignettes about the funny business of being. Because Van Winkle is first a sculptor, his paintings, or "flat stuff" as he prefers to call them, have a sculptor's compulsion for form. There is generally a central image in a large space, and the horizon of a floor. And, if there is a good excuse, appendages and extension cords breach the frame's border. Compared to Van Winkle's sculpture, in which the painted areas have precise margins, his paintings have a child's instinctual distaste for boundaries. In this show of paintings, as in most of Van Winkle's piercing and delightful work, his "bourgeois" character studies are, in spite of their cartoonlike quality and perplexing diversions, acute portrayals of the guileless soul simply following his instincts. Each of the paintings suggests Adam just heading for Eden's exit, or just out of it. But Van Winkle's portraits are by no means irreverent. In fact, they are tender, innocent and as vulnerable as hospital gowns from the back. His figures always look somewhat compliant, as though they have been handed things to hold for a minute while they have their picture taken. It is the ability to create a true and empathetic image of a human being that Van Winkle shares with primitive or folk artists, who have no agenda other than that. Folk artists are a group Van Winkle respects and looks to for inspiration, but it is his own brand of comic relief that he blows gently on the lit wick of the human ego. "Famous Trio" opens Van Winkle's show as one climbs the spiral steps of the Main Art Gallery. It is a pastiche of Van Winkle's personal logo: the fedora. The pinched crowns of the hats have a menacing dual shadow in their folds that looks suspiciously like the nostrils of a skull. This pushes the hats towards vanitas pieces rather than Lester's more playful association of the hat as a symbol of the civilized male. "Blue Lake" is a love poem with two lovers laced together by heart shapes at every juncture. It is a dear, romantic, wonderfully corny and erotic image, and we should all thank Van Winkle for reminding us to be corny, erotic and romantic because it's so damn nice. "Pooka Palooka" and "Ay Yi Yi Yi Chihuahua" are life-size alter-ego paintings, placed across from one another in the gallery. Both characters are made from the same body, but with different heads, shoes and leitmotifs. "Pooka" is dressed to the nines in gangster wear and seems to be giving up on some magic act with his flaccid pink rabbit, while "Ay Yi Yi" in his white shoes has his excited Chihuahua and a couple of other vices going in a fine juggling act. "Bell and Cluck" is a diptych that appears at first glance to wonder about the unsolved mystery of the chicken and the egg until it becomes apparent (thanks to the title) that the eggs are actually barbells, at which point the question becomes one about heroics and vulnerability. This is a poignant question that repeats in another diptych: "Changing Concepts Of Self." Van Winkle is Superman (in a green shirt) looking fierce and inviolable in his yellow shades. In contrast is a second self-portrait, an imported mix of African mask and cartoon face with scarification marks and irregular teeth. The contrast is lightheartedly alarming. This show, like Noah's Ark or a dance contest, largely invites pairs. The ideas and images in "All My Shirts are Green" have dualities, alter-images and reflections. Perhaps this is because Van Winkle is a dancer and knows the importance of a good