Kenneth Winterschladen: Bigger Than (Most) Birds

Review / October 2022
Kenneth Winterschladen: Bigger Than (Most) Birds
By Mark Harley
It is difficult for me to stand in front of Kenneth Winterschladen’s work and not focus on its immense vulnerability. This, even as I write it, seems an odd choice of words—at a moment dominated by figuration and its focus on the body, it seems strange that that which often eschews the bodily form can mainline my sense of empathy. But even the body can lack what Winterschladen’s best works are chock-full of: an openness to indecision and ambivalence, replete with a willingness to commune with the viewer over uncertainty.

Winterschladen’s most recent exhibition, Divinity (sic), running at South Parade in Deptford from September 8th to October 8th, is perhaps one of the few that seems best suited to the white cube. The artist’s works are largely on wooden boards of various shapes, while his paints are mixed with studio dirt or jute, and stray knick-knacks and shiny things find themselves affixed to the works’ surface. That is to say, there is enough going on without having to worry about context; Winterschladen’s works don’t need help capturing the viewer’s attention.

But the works are far from messy; they assert their own visual language, building a  syntax through repetition both within and across pieces. Motifs like cosmoses—closely linked with repeated spirals, circles, and ovals—are common threads throughout. Likewise, images of the natural world, including birds and flora, proliferate. Hence, the works themselves develop the capacity to contain Winterschladen’s peripatetic focus, resting comfortably on recourse to these foundational components.

Ultimately, it’s this visual language that provides entry to Winterschladen’s softness. These planets and birds and flowers feel taken from a twelve year-old’s science textbook, deployed not with a caustic irony, but instead with a fragile nod towards the sheer range in scale through which we can understand our own existence. Here, Winterschladen suggests that the only thing we as a species can be sure of is our own relative place within these monstrous (better, galactic) scales. Even then, it is the exceptions that prove the rule. The artist seems to note: “I am bigger than a bird (unless that bird is very big), and I am smaller than a planet (unless I draw that planet very small)”—bridging this thinking to a point by attaching small reflective pieces that almost reflect the viewer, but not quite. For those who think these kinds of interrogations trivial, I would say that perhaps they are too sure of things—our human condition is defined by the impossibility of distilling truth and certainty, and if you have not too been flummoxed by the great burden of the knowledge you lack, one must question if one knows anything at all.

In this light, individual elements within the pieces take on meaning. Think to 6 Bancroft (2021), an ovular work to the left of the gallery as the viewer walks in. Divided in two parts, the right side of the canvas is a plan view of Winterschladen’s childhood home in Maryland: the dining room with its large, round table; the living room with a couch and armchairs, and what looks to be a fireplace. The right side of the piece is divided into what looks like latticed window panes, each with their own image—a night sky, some leaves. Again, gestures towards the cosmos and nature set the stage for broader considerations of relationality. But the reference to Winterschladen’s home, viewed from above and miniature in scale, brings us to personal conceptions of self; not only considerations of growing up (big things get small), but of the mutation of space in memory, and of how both time and distance leaves us unsure of our relationships to our past places, not least spatially. This is the visualization of trying to remember what it was  like to be in a place and realizing that you are left grasping at broken scenes and wisps of feeling.

More often than not, to say that a body of work is about “life and death, the universe, and the phenomenon of being alive” is to really say that the work is about nothing at all. However, in Winterschladen’s case, I actually think that’s a fair assessment: to argue  that these works are about anything less is to do them a disservice, and to disregard Winterschladen’s remarkable tact.

Image Credits:
Image 1: Acéphale, 2022. Oil, acrylic, jute fibres, hardware and plastic on panel, 81 x 137 cm / 31.8 x 53.9 in. Courtesy of South Parade.
Image 3: 6 Bancroft, 2021. Oil, collage, mirrors, watercolour, wood and pumice on panel, 81 x 137 cm / 31.8 x 53.9 in
Image 2, 4 + 5: Divinity (Sic) Installation Shot, 2022. Courtesy of South Parade.