The New Uncanny: Winston Chmielinski and the Unlikely Heirs of Freud

by Anna Khachiyan

January 2012

If photorealism is a kind of sophistry—the exploitation of virtuosity in the absence of imagination—no one knows this better than Winston Chmielinski, a young Brooklyn artist whose oeuvre has mined the best of the genre. Like a good cover song, Chmielinski’s art is both an improvement upon and a spirited interpretation of the original medium. But if writing about dead artists is hard enough, writing about a living one is even harder. At the very least, there’s the issue of intentionality. Specifically, you run the risk of imposing an interpretive superstructure in retrospect or where none exists. At first glance, it’s easy to picture Chmielinski’s work as a kind of glorified dental office art—all broad strokes and bright swathes but very little substance—yet it’s just as quickly apparent that this isn’t the case.

Instead of delving into photorealism—as he easily could have done given his talent for conveying the more intangible anatomies of human form—Chmielinski veers away from it, though not entirely. His paintings verge on the threshold of photorealism and abstraction, and in doing so evoke a kind of cognitive dissonance in the viewer. This is the uncanny, or to paraphrase an anonymous critic, something that is incomprehensibly familiar. In Chmielinski’s work, capable figuration is broken by abstract fields of color that guide the eye to “fill in” these lapses in anatomy. The humans depicted in these images are morbid and sinister, yet anatomically plausible, indeed, almost palpable. More often than not, they’re intentionally incomplete, but it is unclear whether they are flourishing or decaying.

In the blotchiness of his palette, Chmielinski is reminiscent of Jenny Saville and in his prosthetic quality of line, of another famous anatomist, Francis Bacon. Yet, in spite of sharing a largely similar subject matter, he avoids recapitulating the patronizing and muddled vision of the “frayed fraud,” Lucien Freud, to borrow a phrase from Linda Nochlin.

Chmielinski works exclusively in color, which is in and of itself, a difficult thing. After all, color is usually the domain of total abstraction (Rothko) or commercial camp (Murakami). Both Saville and Bacon rely on desaturated palettes, as does Freud, perhaps as a way of signifying the particular cynicism of their outlook. Chmielinski’s paintings, on the other hand, are a delirium of color, but in a strange way, the desire to uncover primordial patterns in their midst is gradually overwhelmed by the overriding harmony of the figuration. His use of acrylic, as opposed to oil, allows him to reach even greater heights of tonal clarity. But, in the end, it wouldn’t matter so much if they were all just shades of gray.

In Bill I Don’t Know You (2010), we are confronted with what we might infer to be the homosexual gaze. And Portrait 14 (2010) seems so much like a photograph, without actually looking like one, that it’s heart-clapping. In other paintings—and there are a fair amount of them—entire bodies are assembled from swatches of color like a human patchwork.

That is not to say that Chmielinski’s vision is free of technical shortcuts. Such is the fate of today’s young artiste, from the graffiti tapestries of Curtis Kulig to the sibling riffing of Max Snow. (It’s a telling bit of trivia that a Google search of Nate Lowman turns up mostly candids of his time as an Olsen paramour and not actual images of his art.) But in Chmielinski’s case, such minor breaches make the art, rather than expose it as a sham.

Nochlin, in her delightfully annihilating review of Freud’s work, recalls the feeling of malaise brought on by the “combination of undistinguished painting and bad faith, tricked out with surely the most ostentatious hype ever lavished on a living artist.” Freud has since passed on, but his myth remains stronger than ever. In the microcosm of the downtown art scene, such superlatives are even more liberally applied, given what is at stake. Dash Snow, remember, was praised less for his ephemeral, ejaculate-heavy aesthetic, than for being the embodiment of a particular way of life, demystified for the masses in Ariel Levy’s profile of Snow and his former roommates Dan Colen and Ryan McGinley in a January 2007 issue of New York magazine.

This culture of compensatory hyperbole is what Hilton Kramer, and later, Nochlin, come to call a veritable “blizzard of blague.” Nochlin, for her part, contrasts Freud with his “near-contemporary compatriot,” Bacon, “who invented a highly individual language of extremity to body forth a powerful if uneven sexually charged imagery. Freud’s language, on the other hand, is retardataire, his conception of things and human beings monotonous.” The mythology swirling around Freud reveals a common logical error that applies just as well to Colen, Lowman and post-Snow artists like Aurel Schmidt and Lucien Smith. This is the confusion of courage with debauchery. Both Freud and Snow are enmeshed in their artistic process—the former guiding his models to new heights of awkwardness and the latter living it as it unfolds. In Freud’s vernacular, odd angles and subversive subject matter are understood to signify alienation. Nudity is a form of humiliation, reserved mostly for fat people and women. Meanwhile, among New York’s young vanguard, it is far less important to be a “legitimate” artist than it is to live the artist’s lifestyle, the consequence of accepting a policy of diversity without acknowledging the inherent distinctions such a word implies. In a cultural landscape that privileges (the illusion of) infamy as the ultimate measure of uniqueness, this shift may seem inevitable.

Nochlin is Freud’s greatest critic; she ascribes to him a number of faults, strongest among them his unsuppressed misogyny. But even this attribution of motive is a kind of unintentional, backhanded flattery of his myth. Where Nochlin sees ideology, there is very little to be found. With Evening in the Studio (1993), she suggests that Freud is letting us know, “in no uncertain terms what he thinks of women who are no longer ‘girls’ and have the temerity to take their clothes off in front of him.” More likely, he is quite simply exploiting the potential of the grotesque as a canvas. For the disenchanted artist, it is much more interesting, after all, to model the natural properties of pendulous breasts and flaccid penises than it is to toil over an academic nude. Cezanne’s early works—before he arrived at a mature style with his endless permutations of the Mont St. Victoire—were stormy rape scenes.

No doubt Freud came to believe in the validity of his own myth. His aesthetic was, if nothing else, a war on surface area. The sheer magnitude of some of his canvases meant that he had to develop a systematic technique to cover them in their entirety, like a Photoshop script that could be applied to any number of works without having to address each on a case-by-case basis. His artfully discarded artists’ effects—a blanket here, some bunched studio rags there—are, as Nochlin suggests, nothing but space filler. And his signature sprawled-out pose, used for men as often as it was for women, is little else than a diversion from the poverty of his palette. Freud is aiming for surface effect but he lacks the charisma of Bacon, or even someone like Alice Neel, whose imagery of domestic life was inflected with an unsurpassed energy and compassion.

In a similar fashion, the aesthetic of downtown cool has migrated from monumental to portable, confined largely to sidewalks, sketchpads and skateboard decks or comprised of urban detritus and other ephemera. These limited means of production are easy to implement and regulate, and in addition, capitalize on the allure of authenticity. Even the success of Kulig’s ubiquitous “Love Me” tag rests on its scalability, that is, it can be scaled up or down to suit the circumstances, but it is always the same. Enlarged to billboard size, it takes on an absurdist Koonsian quality, with all the requisite irony; replicated over and over again on a canvas, it begins to resemble the “textile-painting” of Ghada Amer. Admittedly, it’s an ingenious play on perception: the toughness of the medium counteracted by the sweet desperation of the message. Kulig is auspiciously billed as a photographer turned graffiti artist, and one look at his portfolio tells us why: in an age where anyone can take a good picture, his photographs are uniquely deprived of personality (mostly, they’re useful as a compendium of name-dropping). They lack both the verve of Snow and the mystique of McGinley.

If it seems odd to include Kulig and Chmielinski in one critique, consider them as counterpoised poles of a broad youth movement. This juxtaposition brings up the issue of censorship as a constructive force. In the later decades of the Soviet Union, the DIY aesthetic was a necessity, in post-millennial New York, it is an extravagance—a way of broadcasting authenticity in the absence of artistry. In light of this, Chmielinski is in many ways a formalist—his methods don’t deviate much from the traditional view of the artists’ vocation and materials. Whereas Freud exposes everything, Chmielinski censors his own work. This partial recognition forces us, the viewers, to effectively grow new synaptic connections for processing this order of sensory feedback. It remains to be seen what will become of Chmielinski. This is the challenge of any young artist, developing a style that is both recognizable and constantly evolving.