SANTA BARBARA — Encountering a room full of Terry Winters' paintings is rather like walking barefoot along the bank of a stream after a summer shower. The sun is shining on the wet landscape and everything glistens. As your feet sink into warm mud, you look down at your disappearing toes and notice nature's elaborate design in crystals, honeycombs and branches. Glancing across the water you see dragon flies darting through a scene littered with destruction and rejuvenation.
In a major show of his paintings and drawings, at UC Santa Barbara's University Art Museum (to Feb. 21) and University Center Gallery (to Friday), the New York artist takes you back to nature--and back to the nature of painting. Winters presents insects, spores, seashells, pods and cellular masses as if they were made of paint. His art immerses viewers in an earthy experience of nature and the process of applying pigment to canvas.
The tale of the paintings and drawings on view at Santa Barbara, as told by critic Christopher Knight in a catalogue essay, begins in 1980 when Winters painted a crystalline structure that emulated the microscopic composition of his pigment. It was a sensible move for an artist who makes his own paint (by grinding pigments and mixing them with oil) and a logical development in the Minimalist preoccupation with art that is concerned only with itself.
For Winters, however, the fateful crystal led to an exploration of natural forms that rejects both Minimalism's clinical purity and Neo-Expressionism's self-indulgence. He paints squishy, imperfect mineral and vegetable objects that often look as if they have just assumed their present form or are in the process of decay or evolution.
Predominantly painted in grays and browns with surprising flashes and resonant undercurrents of color, these forms are naturally messy but aesthetically precise. Appearing as if they have been dredged from the deep instead of artfully arranged, they gather in bunches, erupt in bubbles, line up in rows or float above earthy strata.
"Dumb Compass," a 1985 work from the Saatchi collection, most clearly deals with the notion of evolution in an array of bulbous forms that assume the identities of bright balloons, insect bodies, cross sections of fruit, human organs and cartoonish faces.
Other works generally offer subtler suggestions of matter becoming form. "Free Union," for example, depicts cellular structures as see-through nets, modular solids and vaguely discernible units. "Colony," "Lumen" and "Tracer" all depict fields of compartmentalized objects in various incarnations.
At the same time you discover particular botanical specimens or nature's repetitive forms, however, you are aware that these are painted images, brought to life through ridges, splats and trails of colored mud. Winters' answer to the troublesome question of what to paint--at a time when everything appears to have been done--is paint itself. He makes marks and lays down fluid color, but it's as if the material itself creates a view of nature more true to experience than appearance.
The exhibition was organized by University Art Museum curator Phyllis Plous, who has filled the museum with 20 paintings and 10 works in charcoal, chalk, crayon and graphite on paper. In addition, about 50 drawings from "Schema," a book currently in production, are in the University Center Gallery.
Here Winters exposes his sensibility more intimately. In small scale, his vivid balls of color, quivering blobs and trembling botanical structures have a more imaginative, fanciful tone than in his paintings. The final sheet seems to encompass an entire landscape as a yellow "face" and red tree rise above a high horizon.
Much has been said about the death of painting, prematurely declared in the '70s when Minimalism took a stern view of subjective expression and such up-to-date mediums as video and performance seemed so relevant. Even more has been uttered about painting's resurgence. While no artist can make the world safe for painting, many are trying to turn out artworks that advance its cause.
Winters is at the forefront of that movement, though his work is relatively unsung. Neither pretty enough nor literal enough to attract a large popular following, his art nonetheless is so conceptually sound, authentically rendered and unpretentious that it has earned respect in professional circles.