JTF (just the facts): A total of 50 color photographs, unframed and affixed with magnets against white walls in the main gallery space. All of the works are pigment prints, made in 2023. Each print is sized 5×7 inches (or the reverse) and the works are available in editions of 10. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Almost by definition, the richly enveloping color backdrops that have become Neil Winokur’s aesthetic signature over the past several decades seem best matched to manufactured products. His seamless color setups draw on lighting techniques used in commercial photography, with colored gels making the studio surroundings even more surreally saturated and vibrant than we might find in a normally bright product shoot. So it seems altogether obvious that such a precisely unnatural approach would highlight best the sculptural features of a frying pan, a glass of wine, a Chinese food container, a disposable coffee cup, or even a roll of toilet paper, all of which he has photographed memorably over the years.
So when I heard that Winokur’s recent photographs featured still life items from nature, I have to admit that I was initially somewhat skeptical. While Winokur had succeeded at turning fruits and vegetables into memorable sculptural forms in a 2021 gallery show (reviewed here), I was puzzled by the idea of natural objects, like a bird’s nest, functioning inside Winokur’s plastic realm of candy-colored pinks, oranges, blues, and greens. To me, the concept seemed almost too dissonant and oppositional to actually work without seeming mannered, so I arrived at the gallery loaded with a healthy dose of wariness.
And in a surprising twist of expectations, I found that for the most part, nature held up just fine within Winokur’s artificial world, and most notably, I thought the image of rocks were unexpectedly enchanting. I realize that it sounds almost too absurd to be true, but there are half a dozen or so portraits of entirely forgettable rocks scattered through this wandering installation of small prints, and every one of them is mystifyingly engaging. A smooth light grey rock with a few dark lines against a pink backdrop; a rougher chunk of perhaps granite in rich blue; a sinuously worn trapezoid of grey rock in a sea of orange – these images are somehow honest, humble, attentive, celebratory, and slightly comic all at once. In Winokur’s colored isolation, the modest personalities of these rocks seem to slowly emerge, each one a strangely compelling individual; in a grid, they’d likely be even more perplexingly wonderful, both serious and not.
Winokur applies the same approach to a variety of easily gathered walk-in-the-woods finds, including acorns, chestnuts, sticks, pinecones, hunks of bark, and a few other less identifiable seeds and pods. None of these objects seems destined for the cases of a natural history museum, but Winokur documents them with patience and care nonetheless. The sculptural qualities of the pinecones (one turning left, the other turning right) are particularly apparent, as are those of the rounded and burnished chestnuts; a craggy shard of bark seems almost impossibly gnarled and chunky when looked at so closely. Winokur also has simple fun with two maple leaves, placing a green one against an orange backdrop and and orange one against a green backdrop.
The taken-out-of-context tension between natural and fake runs through all of these pictures, and Winokur seems happy to lean into that friction. Three excellent images each feature a bird sitting on a tree branch – a cardinal, a bluejay, and maybe some kind of oriole. But of course, the birds aren’t real – they might be Christmas ornaments, or at least styrofoam and feathers replicas – and the same branch has been used for all three photographs. What’s smart about these pictures is that they pull on our assumptions about what such pictures look like, and then playfully upend those very same expectations with obviously artificial scenes – they are chuckle-inducing in the best possible way, with an ensuing head nod to the conceptual cleverness of the joke. Winokur then goes one final step further with this playful nature-or-not game, twisting us all the way back around to a few in-the-wild images of squirrels and a deer drinking from a birdbath that look fake but actually aren’t.
While in the past Winokur has generally made his prints available in various sizes, some as large as 50×60 inches, these prints have been been printed small (just 5×7 inches or the reverse), and hung in a jaunty undulating sweep around the gallery. Priced at $100 each, they are an easily consumable impulse buy, a real signed and numbered artwork to be added to a mood board, placed above a desk, or simply enjoyed in an intimate way, like a bookmark. This set of presentation choices actually matches the works themselves quite elegantly – sure, the images of rocks might be great much bigger, but they seem altogether more personal when kept so small, almost like we could tuck them away in a pocket, just like a stone or an acorn picked up on a hike through the woods. On the walls of the gallery, they are like the breadcrumbs of a trail to be followed, each an overlooked find on the winding path.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $100 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.