Mechanick Exercises: Colin Van Winkle at the C. Grimaldis Gallery by Joseph Shaikewitz
It becomes quite clear upon entering Mechanick Exercises—Colin Van Winkle’s current solo-presentation at C. Grimaldis Gallery—that this is a visually austere and thematically obdurate exhibition. Amidst its underlying premise of resurrecting an Enlightenment-era manual and despite the earnest craftsmanship of each wooden assemblage on view, the work ultimately allows little room for conceptual complexity or aesthetic depth.
The exhibition takes an early-18th century book titled Mechanick Exercises: Or, the Doctrine of Handy-Works as its titular muse, drawing on English intellectual Joseph Moxon’s extensive overview of the basic techniques behind a number of crafts and trades. It’s a topic that I don’t purport to be an expert on, and I would venture to assume that the same is true for a number of visitors to the exhibition. Moxon’s posthumous publication assembles his serial treatises on tasks including smithing, joinery, carpentry, and turning—skills that, in turn, both set the basis for Van Winkle’s conceptual framework and provide the artist with an encyclopedia of techniques that he deploys in the production of his sculptures. Five such works occupy the compact back space at the C. Grimaldis Gallery, tucked away behind a salesroom of postwar European and American art.
The pedagogical intent of Moxon’s writing translates into a show that is without question technically adroit, yet at the same time content to rest on its dexterous laurels. Chromatically, thematically, and spectatorially, the works make little effort to relate trade skills from centuries past to our own, current moment. The result is a grouping that feels willfully stagnant and temporally remote: while the works may be read in a proto-Minimalist context, Van Winkle’s insistence on showcasing foundational techniques lags behind in a vexing disharmony. Although the artist lays the groundwork for an inspired exhibition through a clear amount of research, his execution—while perhaps deliberate—struggles to find much contemporary resonance.
Three wall reliefs are the most offending culprits. Each “Alignment” sculpture incorporates a slight geometric cut-out or design into its flat wooden surface, which is then propped onto the wall as if an afterthought. The reliefs produce shallow zones of contemplation that do little to engage with their spatial positioning or imminent beholder. Across its formal and structural rendering, each piece suggests a utilitarian function that is slightly tweaked when hung upright on the wall to face the viewer.
Strangely, then, the Alignment series provokes an experience comparable to visiting a museum of cultural artifacts. The sculptures read as once-useful objects that are now out of reach and gravely out of touch with current aesthetic tendencies—worthwhile perhaps in retrospect despite their undeniable recentness. If Van Winkle has attempted to revive Moxon’s defining approaches to trade skills, then the decision to present the works as ethnographic objects does little to harvest any sort of present-day merit to these outmoded approaches.
Two floor sculptures, though similarly restricted by the overarching technical datedness, are nevertheless the redeeming highlights of Mechanick Exercises. Sitting alone in a corner of the gallery, “Placking Horse” (2013) features a workbench-like assemblage with sweeping bands of wood that are secured into the total mechanism like intersecting brushstrokes. The complex linearity of the sculpture feels like a Franz Kline painting in three dimensions or a Louise Nevelson combine that has been unpacked and mobilized across space. The dark, black treatment of the wood is set off by a natural red oak rod that thrusts upwards and off-balance. The implied potential for kineticism for the otherwise static object creates a moment of tension and fragile harmony.
Regrettably, the inadvertent scale of “Placking Horse” fails to provoke any corporeal intrigue. Through a visual rhetoric rooted in functionality, the work recalls an 18th-century workstation from afar, but this notion is undermined by its slightly shrunken dimension that refutes this sculptural ideal. A table sculpture by Sir Anthony Caro (“Mirth,” 2011, also on view at C. Grimaldis Gallery), which one encounters en route to Van Winkle’s work, echoes this strangeness of scale. Caro’s anthropomorphic sensibility characterizes the late artist’s work and successfully translates from small to large scale, from tabletop to expansive gallery. “Placking Horse” suffers in a peculiar in-between space that renders the work corporeally off-limits. While I want to situate myself among the piece’s dramatic vertices, I find it difficult to fully do so. Moreover, sequestered into a corner, the sculpture is not fully available for a comprehensive experience in the round. The works attempts to invite my presence but ultimately rejects any fitting rapport with the human body or scale.
“Blue House & Red Moon Beam” (2015) is the exhibition standout, more readily igniting a sculptural imagination. The work consists of two independent structures with seemingly competing spatial motivations. To the left, a tall red post curves upwards as it tapers to a rounded end. Its phallic semblance is overshadowed by a gentle lightness and I found myself fixated on pondering the potential hollowness of its interior. A shallow, pale blue segment recalling a roof support with overlaid shingles sits idly beside. Its quotidian form recalls Gordon Matta-Clark’s building cuts; however, the interest here is in the form as a constructed, autonomous object rather than the creation of a mnemonic moment pulled from reality. While normally the establishment of some personal or even narrative pull would help to animate the object, here the disparities across the two forms ignite the work’s internal logic.
The sculpture as a whole establishes a number of interesting contrasts that, while not fully-fledged, produce a largely compelling viewing experience. Questions of positive vs. negative space; the monumental vs. the memorializing; and implicitly vs. explicitly laying bare the means of creation emerge across the installation in a thoughtful flux. The resulting dialogue is present but not forced, allowing viewers to tease out such intricacies at their leisure. “Blue House & Red Moon Beam” thankfully pulls the exhibition together, but it functions as an overdue conclusion to an otherwise lackluster body of work.
Ultimately, it is Van Winkle’s recycling of Moxon’s 1703 Mechanik Exercises that falls short in generating an emotionally accessible or particularly stirring exhibition. While literature has long been intertwined with the visual arts, the result in this instance shuttles between esoteric and sterile.
In contrast, countless artists have more interestingly and successfully inserted fiction and non-fiction works alike into their aesthetic undertakings. The recent Guggenheim exhibition Storylines, for example, suggests that this relationship hinges on the imaginative prowess of narrative, but the link can oftentimes be even more direct and creatively derivative. Artworks originating in works of literature—and vice versa—allow the textual and the visual to fill in the ostensible gaps of their counterpart. From Los Angeles-based artist Marco Rios to French visionary Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster to the powerhouse that is Glenn Ligon, a rich assortment of practitioners have honed specific thematic, allegorical, or syntactic elements of literature to poignant and powerful ends.
Perhaps most importantly, such artists draw on what I would argue to be a visceral universality that allows the spectator to exist independently from the bibliophile; one must not necessarily be versed in an artwork’s literary inspiration to grasp the messages in their artistic reinterpretation.
For an artist who has successfully incorporated more playful motifs, more openly defined forms, and more thoughtful uses of space into his past work (it’s easy to get lost in the index of his previous work), Van Winkle’s Mechanick Exercises comes off as a move in an obscure direction. Art is unique in its ability to visually render specific notions and aspects of contemporaneity and that opportunity feels lacking in this exhibition.
Still, recent critical thought on craft and trade as it relates to economic, social, and cultural spheres may arm Van Winkle with a more complex literary toolbox—if this exhibition represents a new trajectory in the artist’s practice. Should the opportunity arise, I would be eager to experience his refined craftsmanship and succinct visual forms through the lens of a more relatable and opportune contemporary moment.
Colin Van Winkle: Mechanick Exercises was on exhibit at the C. Grimaldis Gallery from September 16 – October 17, 2015.
Author Joseph Shaikewitz is a Baltimore-based writer and curator from St. Louis, MO. He is the Gallery Manager at Hamiltonian Gallery in DC and a graduate of Johns Hopkins University.
All images courtesy of the C. Grimaldis Gallery.