When Maine-based painter John Winship first heard Emily Dickinson’s poem “Presentiments,” he wanted to go back and give that title to every painting he’d ever completed. In a 1998 interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, while discussing the sense in his paintings that “there’s always something about to happen,” he quoted the poem in full:
Presentiment—is that long Shadow—on the Lawn—
Indicative that Suns go down—
The Notice to the startled Grass
That darkness—is about to pass—
Winship’s acrylic and oil paintings do seem to arise out of Dickinson’s domestically grassy, shady vision of past moments that are somehow infused with present and future at once. Working from old black-and-white photographs from places like his grandmother’s photo album, Winship fills canvases with color, darkness, and anonymity. “I think that when we contemplate the moments of happiness or solemnity recorded in snapshots we have an emotionally complicated awareness of how irrevocably distant and how fragile those moments are: that complicated awareness is what I’m trying to paint,” he writes in his artist statement at www.johnwinship.com. “I’m trying to capture the deeper psychological currents behind the innocent surface images of the photographs.”
The faces in Winship’s paintings are variously obscured: they are often rendered in deep shadow (Seated Man (Oceanside) and Couple Eating (Poolside)) or blurred (Two Women beside a Pool); they may be cut from view, as in Yellow Boat and Diver (Diptych); or they may be looking away, into the landscape, only presenting their backs—as in Dark Water (Two Figures) and Woman beside a River. Thick and hazy, these paintings offer soft edges and contours evocative of psychological twilights that Winship describes in his artist statement as “attempts to break down the specificity of the photograph’s subject matter and allow the viewer to project more freely into the painting.”
In keeping with the notion of presentiment, Winship’s compositions invite narrative interpretations; concerning Yellow Boat, for example, one may wonder who is in the boat, and also where he or she is headed as the stern perpetually exits the frame—or is that the bow entering? Likewise, Breakdown (the cover image) naturally leads one to contemplate where the woman is and who will rescue her as she waits on a hillside, facing away from us and staring toward her stalled car—and probably beyond into a desolate rural landscape. Winship’s placement of his subjects within their settings also suggests imposing and dreamlike scenarios: landscapes dominate many of the paintings, with a particularly pervasive emphasis on water. In Couple Eating (Poolside), two older people dine, in dark clothing, at the bottom right as an ocean-like and deserted pool intensely fills the majority of the space, dissolving into a near-sky by the top of the frame. The atmosphere, as in so many of Winship’s paintings, involves the casting of a soft, existential pall, what Gerrit Henry of Art in America calls “deconstructed nostalgia” in a 1999 review of a show at Katharina Rich Perlow Gallery in New York.
All images copyright © 2013 by John Winship. Most images are acrylic on canvas; the last, Diver (Diptych), is oil on canvas.