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HANG TIME : Getting Into the Sculptures of Jackie Winsor Requires Getting Down With Them at Newport Harbor

February 13, 1992|CATHY CURTIS | Cathy Curtis covers art for The Times Orange County Edition.

A rare and lovely thing can happen when you look at the sculptures of Jackie Winsor, the subject of a Milwaukee Art Museum retrospective exhibiton view through March 31 at Newport Harbor Art Museum.

Now, I don't mean just glancing at these pieces, the way so many of us glide aimlessly through museums. I mean hanging out with them--bending down, when necessary, to look inside their "windows" and hollowed-out places, and letting yourself be attracted by their shapes and colors and surfaces.

These simple-seeming works--made of rope or wood or cement, organized in pyramid, sphere or cube shapes--have unusual qualities of repose and privacy that attach themselves to the attentive, receptive viewer.

Much has been made of Winsor's rural childhood in eastern Canada in the 1940s as an influence on the presence and stillness of her work. When her family moved to Boston in 1952, it was a form of culture shock, and she returned to Newfoundland during summer vacations. In college and graduate school, she worked in several media but ultimately felt most at home making abstract objects that she placed on the floor.

In 1967, in her mid-20s, she moved to Manhattan. It was a time when a number of young artists were experimenting with droopy materials such as felt and rubber, and she began making floor pieces out of lengths of castoff rope dipped in latex or polyester resin. Her first significant piece was "Rope Trick," a six-foot-tall length of rope with an unraveled base that appears (thanks to an invisible metal rod) to stand on end, like a column.

The most important influence on Winsor in these years was Yvonne Rainer, an experimental choreographer who suppressed such traditional dance elements as virtuosity and variation from her work. Instead, her dancers concentrated on doing repetitious everyday movements, akin to the ones we all use to get out of a chair or reach for something on a shelf.

Winsor would spend a long time thinking up a piece and then execute it as a painstaking series of almost ritualistic repeated motions (like wrapping hemp thread around a piece of wood or forming a perfect sphere out of ce ment). Although she had a distinct goal, each piece involved an unpredictable evolution of form. When she combined two materials--hemp and wood, for instance, or wood slats and the air between them--she took pains to give each material an equal presence by paying close attention to density, weight and silhouette.

In "Brick Dome" (first made in 1971; the piece in the exhibit was remade last year), a concrete hemisphere is covered with painstakingly spaced concentric rows of red bricks. Normally, when we see bricks in a wall, only one flat surface is showing. Here, Winsor does exactly the reverse by hiding one surface (the one attached to the dome) and revealing the other five. (Winsor's persistent interest in the contrast between interior and exterior spaces of her work eventually led to making pieces she would break apart and reassemble, inside-out.)

In "Brick Dome," the airy, open pattern of the bricks contrasts to the closed and "secretive" qualities of the hemisphere, which appears to be a solid mass, even though it is actually hollow. The even spacing of the bricks--normally structural materials, here used as a form of embellishment--suggests the outcome of a quiet, meditative process done according to a private plan. And the cozy size of the piece, which is 32 inches high, suggests the transformation of a domestic architectural form (the igloo) into a kind of domestic furniture--an object we can meet in a casual, friendly way.

In the mid-1970s, Winsor began working in cube formats, using wood or concrete. A few of these pieces are "survivors" that bear to a greater or lesser degree the scars of being subjected to cruel and unusual punishments (being dragged by a car, set on fire, dynamited or pried apart). The reinforced concrete interior of "Exploded Piece," from 1980-82--visible through small, square "windows"--has the ravanged look of a bombed-out house.

Continuing her exploration of the relationship between the insides and outsides of her pieces in the 1980s, Winsor extended her repertoire to pyramids with deep wells on top and flattened spheres with small, square "windows." Colored pigment (usually blue, but sometimes pink or red) mixed with portions of the wet cement added a seductive vibrancy the insides of these pieces, although they lack the extraordinarily workmanlike purity and sobriety of her earlier work.

Winsor's most recent works in the exhibit, from the late 1980s and early '90s, are small, square wall pieces. Their inset centers are the main event, heightened by the resonant effect of white, black or colored pigment on all five surfaces of the recessed area. For all their seeming straightforwardness, these pieces guard their secrets: No matter how close you approach, the centers (which are actually very shallow) appear to retreat into mysterious depths, abetted by the workings of light and shadow.

What: "Jackie Winsor," 25 sculptures by the artist, dating from the late 1960s to the present.

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, through March 29.

Where: 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach.

Whereabouts: Take Jamboree Road to Santa Barbara Drive, just north of the Coast Highway. San Clemente runs off Santa Barbara.

Wherewithal: Adults, $3.50; students and seniors, $2.50; children 6 to 17, $1. Discounts for groups of 10 or more.

Where to call: (714) 759-1122.

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