Neil Winokur, Produce @Janet Borden

JTF (just the facts): A total of 18 color photographs, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the single room gallery space. The works are a mix of Cibachrome and Fujicolor prints, made between 1992 and 2021. The prints on view are sized either 14×11 or 20×16 inches, but the images can be printed up to 60×50 inches. Each image is available in a total edition of 10, regardless of print size. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: The artistic depictions of fruits and vegetables trace their roots back to the very beginnings of art history, and given that immense sweep of time, we might therefore reasonably predict that artists had long ago exhausted the visual possibilities of the genre. But the universal appeal of natural abundance never entirely fades away, and so the fruit and vegetable still life constantly seems to renew itself.

Photographically, after William Henry Fox Talbot used fruit as a subject in some of the initial visual experiments that defined the medium, essentially every stylistic mode and photographic approach that has emerged since then has been applied to gloriously humble piles of fruits and vegetables (on their own, in bowls, on tables, and otherwise). They have been made painterly and Pictorialist; they have been given a Surreal touch with solarization and multiple exposures; they have been used in photograms; they have been rigorously (and lovingly) documented; they have been seen with sculptural Modernist clarity; and they have been amplified by the bright-light perfected look of the commercial or advertising shoot. Of late, we’ve seen fruits and vegetables used as conceptual tools, re-seen as paper cutouts or in collages, and re-imagined with digital manipulation and mark making. The various apples, oranges, and potatoes themselves haven’t changed much over all that time, but our vision of them (and what they might artistically or photographically represent) keeps evolving.

Neil Winokur’s most recent body of work gamely takes up the produce theme once again. Winokur has been making brightly colored studio still lifes and portraits for more than four decades now, and inevitably along the way, he has made a few images of fruits and vegetables. His 2015 show (reviewed here) created a taxonomy of “essential items” (like nail clippers, frying pans, toilet paper, eyeglasses, and Chinese food takeout boxes), and over the years, he has memorably shown us objects in various categories, including images of items found at the hardware store and classic New York things (including a MetroCard, a bagel, a rat, and a pigeon). A few of the images of fruits and vegetables on view here reach back to the early 1990s, but for the most part, these are new works, pushing him deeper into the subject than ever before.

Winokur’s unique, saturated-color aesthetic draws on the techniques used in commercial photography, which he has then continued to adapt and transform over the course of his career. In general, Winokur’s subjects (whether they are objects, people, or even dogs) are placed in the confines of a color setup, which is either made seamless (and in a sense infinitely undefined) or with a dividing line (like a horizon) that separates “floor” from “backdrop”. In different projects, he has played with the available color options, either matching object and backdrop (red rose and red backdrop), or deliberately not matching the two (or three, if the backdrop is divided), thereby offering a range of compositional choices. His colors are further enhanced by flash-lighting with colored gels, the enveloping color made richer and deeper (rather than blasted whiter), and depending on the number and placement of those lights, Winokur can play with the shadows cast underneath and around his subjects. The resulting photographs have a commonality of sculptural isolation and color vibrancy that makes them immediately recognizable.

Vegetables with complex textures and imperfect silhouettes are particularly engaging when seen inside Winokur’s colored worlds. His wispy fennel feels delicately graceful against its thrumming yellow background, the nested leaves of his scarred artichoke stand at attention inside a warm light orange glow, and the torn green leaves of his bok choy make the vegetable feel like an individual with personality rather than a perfect specimen. A series of three images of mushrooms (installed behind the desk) use blue, purple, and pink settings to highlight their tactile surfaces, from densely clustered gills and skirts to a fleshy white bulb covered with a  shaggy carpet of tiny waves. And Winokur turns a squash blossom into an exuberant vertical sculpture, with curving petals flowing outward.

Many of the other vegetables Winokur has used as subjects have much simpler forms, leading to more elemental compositions. An ear of corn stands vertically, as does a yellow zucchini, both standing like towers against green backgrounds. Rounder vegetables like the patty pan squash and the kohlrabi feel alternately demure and rugged, while the red onion and garlic have been set against variations of deep purple and blue, which bring out their own purple hues and somehow deepen their intensity.

When the fruits appear, their relative familiarity (at least when compared to some of the more obscure vegetables) makes them feel highly literal, as though Winokur has pared them down to their essences. The apple, orange, and lemon each have a boldly likeable obviousness that seems designed for a children’s book. And yet, the watermelon sliced in half is both eye-poppingly color balanced (between the red of the flesh and the green of the backdrop) and strangely simplified, with the white edge of rind creating a straightforward oval. These fruits seem less like eccentric personalities and more like archetypes, hitting the universal rather than the specific.

It feels altogether likely that Winokur’s fruit and vegetable portraits will end up on the walls of kitchens and restaurants, and in the homes of chefs and gardeners, where their saturated colors will stand out and their subject matter will fit in. (And as an aside, they also feel like the kind of brash, emoji-like work that might translate well to the burgeoning digital world of NFTs.) But the easy approachability of these photographs disguises a more sophisticated photographic undercarriage, where Winokur is pushing the still life toward expressive object portraiture that knowingly leverages (and plays against) the sleek aesthetics of advertising. It’s not at all easy to work within and against the clichés of a red apple or a yellow lemon and still come out with something recognizably personal, but as seen here, Winokur has consistently delivered on that challenge.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $4000 or $5000 each based on size, with larger prints available up to $10000 each. Winokur’s work has little consistent secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Neil Winokur, Janet Borden Inc.

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JTF (just the facts): Published by Aperture in 2024 (here). Softcover with dust jacket (17 x 22.5 cm), 124 pages, with 80 color and black-and-white reproductions. Includes a conversation between ... Read on.

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