On a bitterly cold day in mid-February, Winston Chmielinski is nestled in a giant armchair at a corner table in The Bowery Hotel’s plush lobby area, a room festooned with decadent tapestries, mahogany detailing, oriental rugs, large vases full of peacock feathers and multiple blazing fireplaces. Among the guests lounging in the lobby today are Charlotte Ronson and Emma Roberts, along with a number of other semi-recognizable characters involved in the arts (it is New York Fashion Week, after all). The lithe and statuesque Chmielinski is halfway through Gilles Deleuze’s The Logic of Sensation, a philosophical treatise on Francis Bacon’s work—having graduated recently from NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study with an interdisciplinary degree in philosophy and creative writing, he is characteristically intrigued by the theory behind the practice. A self-professed “painter’s painter,” the young Boston-born artist has already begun to carve out a name for himself within the vast landscape of the international art world. His sensual, evocative portraits feature broad, gestural swathes of vibrant color that serve to both define and obscure the forms he deals with. His work treads the line between representation and abstraction—his impulsive brushstrokes and purposeful censorship of those “recognizable” elements of the figures he paints contrast with the unquestionably lifelike quality he achieves in each work, creating a sort of harmonious discord—a dreamlike, ethereal ambiance tinged at the edges with a suggestion of the uncanny. I sat down at the Bowery with the contemplative, eloquent Chmielinski to talk about his artistic process, sources of inspiration, upbringing, passion for travel, and plans for the future (a residency in Antwerp may be in the works).
ANNABEL GRAHAM: Has your aesthetic developed and changed over time? Your paintings have this intensely otherworldly quality, and your forms are both defined and obscured at the same time. Has that developed or has that always been the style of your work?
WINSTON CHMIELINSKI: It’s developed on a subtle level. I think if you look at my work from high school until now, I’ve always concentrated on figures, and they’ve always been figures that I don’t know. But the way that my obscuring and defining has evolved, I think, is that I used to paint figures and then obscure them after the fact. And that was a way for me to rudimentarily censor out the recognizable elements of somebody, and kind of give myself the space within a figure, or actually on top of a figure, to have abstract explorations, to just kind of go for it and really involve myself with the process of painting as opposed to the rendering.
"Man Woman Bird," Winston Chmielinski
GRAHAM: So would you say the process is more of concern to you than the rendering?
CHMIELINSKI: I would say I’m a “form over content” person. So the way that that’s changed over time is that… as soon as I realized that it became more of a formula, you know, rendering a face and then putting something on top of it, or putting an abstract explosion around a face instead of painting the body, I wanted to incorporate all of that fluidity into the actual initial painting itself. So, you know, deforming a face. Or deforming a body, and using that blank canvas—that first impulsive brushstroke on a blank canvas as the final product, as opposed to polishing and polishing. So, to me it’s changed a lot. And I think that people—there is a divide within my audience, between people who really like the early work and people who like the later work. And one funny thing that’s happened is… when I first started, I would get approached for commissions, and people would see me as a portrait artist, first and foremost, so there would be people who’d be like, “Can you paint my children?” or “Can you paint my dog?” and I don’t really get that anymore… It’s amazing, I mean it’s interesting when someone thinks that you’d want to do that. They always get tedious. And I mean, I guess that’s the commercial part, like if you want to do commercial work and support yourself, but when you don’t want to paint something, it’s more than impossible, because painting is my whole language, so it’s like having to write, like, a sex romance novel, or something, when I’m into poetry… you know, it just doesn’t work. But that’s kind of changed. Now people know that I won’t flatter them to begin with, so I don’t really get too many commissions for that reason anymore.
GRAHAM: Who or what inspires you? Anything at all. Or rather, are there certain things that you think about when you’re beginning a painting? Certain ideas that influence your work?
CHMIELINSKI: As someone who’s always painted, I’ve been highly considerate of, you know, the role of painting within the art world and within my own life, and I think that I’m coming to a point now where I’m embracing painting as a very specific language that can open out onto everything. And it’s okay that I’m a painter. And I think it’s taken a lot of time for me just to reach that point, where it’s like, you know, painting is okay. It’s not stupid, it’s fine.
GRAHAM: Right. Because there’s so much pressure nowadays to do installation work, and video…
CHMIELINSKI: Exactly. And to just be a Renaissance man in a contemporary landscape. I think that the one thing that I’ve embraced also is that I’m drawing from everything that isn’t painting. So I’ve realized that… when I think of the art that I do for myself, as opposed to painting, which is like a face… It’s what people see… I have these strange collections of images I take of street trash and forms that to me are evocative, and all those things are things that I would never show people. You know, I just have these huge gigabyte drives of just images… weird images of everything, and I’m always snapping pictures and reading a lot… I find that my inspirations just kind of coalesce into this manageable 2D surface, in which I can just have a composition and have it completed there. But my greatest inspirations come from masters of… this is going to sound really abstract, but there are certain things I’ll hear… certain composers or musicians or films, that just come off as “perfect” for me. And I’m so inspired by this idea that within one piece of art there can be perfection. Just to name a few… there are [Francis] Bacon paintings… Of course he probably sees something that he would like to develop within his painting process, but to me that painting itself is perfect.
GRAHAM: Is there a specific Bacon painting you had in mind?
CHMIELINSKI: There’s this painting called Jet of Water. I mean, I love his work, how he places a figure inside of a plane and all that stuff, but I think with Jet of Water, this is one of his last paintings, he completely escaped the human figure and… it was like he reached another stage. He had this immense sensation and movement, but within a form that wasn’t human. I think that to me right now, as a figure painter grappling with the same idea of, “How do you paint something that isn’t narrative but that is full of sensation without being literal?” And he managed to do that with Jet of Water. That’s a goal for me as well… I can’t follow in his footsteps, but it shows that it’s at least possible. And it’s really nice.
GRAHAM: Can you talk a bit about your color scheme and what role color plays for you?
CHMIELINSKI: I think that for me, color is what texture is for other painters. If you see my paintings in person, they’re very thin…
GRAHAM: Do you paint with oil or acrylic?
CHMIELINSKI: I use both. For acrylics, I water them down to the point where they’re like watercolor consistency, and then I get an almost plastic luminosity from just the thinness of it, and the white canvas showing through. And then with oils, I’ve just started using oils on top of acrylics, where I know the paint’s going to be thicker and I don’t want it to look plastic. And also of course, the handling is different—with oils you can go back and really polish stuff, whereas with acrylics it gets… mucky and weird. But I would say that I’m more of a colorist, so a lot of what I end up doing when I’m painting is balancing extremes of color, and I think that that’s what gives my paintings dimension, because I really… I’ve never been one to slop paint on, I’ve always been quite reserved with the amount of paint, so the color kind of compensates for that.
GRAHAM: When you begin painting, do you set out with a particular idea in mind of what you think it might look like, or a color in mind? Or does it form as you go?
CHMIELINSKI: I do. I need a lot of guidance while I paint, so I actually try… I always use a source image, and I try to obfuscate it as much as possible so there are moments of me incorporating accidentals and leaps of faith while I paint, but in terms of having a kind of structure on which to kind of load that freedom while painting, I create source imagery from collages. So I’ll take a lot of elements and make sure that they work together, and what I’ve been doing recently is I’ll create collages… I think to go back to that idea of “perfect images,” there have been times when I’ve created something as a source image, but it’s been so cool on its own that when I tried to paint it, the elements that I liked were lost, and the things that remained were like a skeleton, and it didn’t have any of that movement that I like to keep or center things around. So now what I do is I make sure that the source imagery is great but it’s not perfect, and then I hope that in the translation, or the transliteration, it’ll kind of complete itself.
"Portrait 18" - detail - Winston Chmielinski
GRAHAM: What time of day do you work best? Morning, late night…?
CHMIELINSKI: This is actually a really big problem for me. [LAUGHS] I have no good schedule. I’ve found that my best time is in the morning, and that’s usually before I get a coffee, because coffee makes me want to listen to music. And then when I listen to music I want to dance or something, so I think if I wake up and have breakfast… that would be the best time to start painting for me. Also late at night, my contacts fall out, and I hate wearing glasses while I paint…
CHMIELINSKI: Yeah. It’s so weird, like the little tiny things that you can see that are in your periphery kind of pull… they kind of weight the process. So even when I’m looking at my source imagery, if there’s a border on it, it completely changes how I would grapple with the composition. It’s just these weird things that I’ve started to become really sensitive to, and having your contact fog up or get sticky is probably the most distracting thing in the world for painting.
GRAHAM: Can you tell us a bit about your background? Where did you grow up, how did you “find” art, how did your love of art and painting develop?
CHMIELINSKI: I grew up in Boston, and originally… well, I played a lot of computer games, like a lot of computer games, and I had always been doodling, but I think while I gamed I was doodling a lot of swords, and elves and stuff, so I thought that I wanted to be a concept artist, and then… I don’t think that attraction to the fantasy world has ever ended. But maybe around when I was a junior in high school was when I first started painting, and it was because I was so lackluster at every other extracurricular activity. My school required that we played two sports out of the year, so I would do them, but I was so, again, lackluster at these things that… I wanted to be known for something, and I wasn’t, so when I started painting, it was the first time I ever got, like, a pat on the back. So there was that support from one teacher, and I kind of just went with it. I guess it was a good environment to latch onto something, and so I latched onto painting. I’ve always been really liberal with my colors, and I think that that’s one thing that doesn’t normally happen when you’re in this sort of classroom environment… you have cheap oils, and you’re told to paint this. There’s a kind of “high school brushwork” that’s very tiny and meticulous, and I’ve always been impulsive and impatient, so I just kind of went for it, and that’s turned into what I embrace now.
GRAHAM: So how did you begin to launch yourself in the world as a young artist? What was the turning point for you, when you went from being a student to being more recognized in the art world?
CHMIELINSKI: I would say having an online presence early on was probably what gave me the idea that I could do this for a living. I joined a few of those art portfolio communities, and I just got a lot of good feedback from them. My mother’s actually a pastel artist, and she’s involved in more of a local art scene in Boston; she does fairs and things… and in the neighborhood where I was living when I was in high school, Jamaica Plain, they have this monthly art open studio thing, so I kind of just submitted my art to the city arts council and they gave me a little show, and I sold work there for the first time. And it was insane, because my dad’s a lawyer, so he was like, “Okay, price it high.” And my paintings sold for quite a bit of money, and then this one collector bought like thirteen pieces… and all of a sudden, I had a savings, like a pretty nice savings. And so I ended up going… as soon as I graduated from high school, I took a year and a half and went to Paris, and there I kind of pretended that I was an artist. And I think that gave me the confidence to kind of just say, okay, I can go somewhere and just do this, and from the get-go, present myself as somebody who, you know, paints, and be taken seriously. And because I haven’t really done anything else, maybe it’s out of ignorance that I’m still doing it, I don’t know.
GRAHAM: When you went to Paris, were you doing a program?
CHMIELINSKI: I enrolled in a third-party study abroad program, and it was a French language, contemporary art kind of coursework thing. I ended up leaving the program because it was so overpriced for what we were getting, and worked in a bar… painted out of this really shitty apartment near Bastille on the fifth floor. It was a rooftop thing… I guess they call it sous les toits, or “under the roof.” I couldn’t stand up, I had to like sit down and shower. It was super intense, my parents of course were like offended… they were like, “How could you do this? This is disgusting!” But I painted there, and the one good thing was that I had this amazing skylight, so I always had really nice sunlight for painting. And so I just did that for a while.
GRAHAM: What bar did you work at?
CHMIELINSKI: I worked at a bar in the Marais called Le Feeling.Super tacky bar. I tell people now because it’s funny. If anyone’s ever been in that district, it’s like the one bar that you never go into. You literally walk by and you’re like, how could that place still be in business? And I got hired because they just lost their… they called it their “one ethnic employee.” So they were like, “Come in! You’re underage, that’s fine, just don’t tell anybody…” I learned a lot of really bad French there. [LAUGHS]
GRAHAM: Who are some of your favorite artists?
CHMIELINSKI: Francis Bacon… I really like Kirchner, this lady Maria Lassnig… she uses a lot of white space too, and has these kind of deformed figures. I mean, they’re all within the same school, I think. I like some obvious ones, like Egon Schiele… I really like De Kooning. He has so many perfect paintings… he’s a painter’s painter. I saw his exhibit at MoMA twice. It blew my mind. It’s amazing… it’s also amazing how much these people have produced. I’ve realized lately that there’s no shortcut to developing your work. You have to do this every day, and you have to just keep going and going and going, and then you’ll find a way to satisfy yourself as you go along.
GRAHAM: Do you have one seminal piece of your own that’s your favorite, or you feel defines your aesthetic?
CHMIELINSKI: That’s actually a really good question. There are ones that I know people will like. So if I’m meeting someone for the first time, and I say I’m an artist, and they say “What do you do?” and I whip out my phone, I’ll probably show them this painting called Man Woman Bird, because I think it’s a good mix of. It was a very successful transition from rendering beautifully and having amazing interplay of colors and shapes and things. My personal favorite work tends to be… the subject matter tends to be a little bit abrasive. It’s funny to me because I definitely don’t arbitrarily choose the images that I do, but I tend to just deal with the forms and then when people see it, the first thing they see is something extremely sexual, or… and I think that it’s a good pointer for me because I want to get away from the literalness of what people can see in my paintings. So I recently did a painting for Envoy Enterprises, which is the gallery that I show for now, and it’s called… it was for this show called Containers. And I really like that painting, so I would say that, out of my recent work. It’s called Large. It should be on my website.
GRAHAM: What’s it of?
CHMIELINSKI: The image is of this lady… it’s a full figure, the only thing that’s cut out is the foot, part of the foot is cut off, but I really like that the whole figure is there, I think that, to kind of sidetrack a little bit, I think that when you have the whole figure, you can really deform it, because you have all the parts. So it would still make sense that it’s a figure, whereas when it’s just a cropped bust, or a face… then it’s dead. You can’t deform it too much or else it won’t be anything. But in order to do these full figures, you need space…
GRAHAM: What’s the scale of your work?
CHMIELINSKI: It’s getting bigger, it’s normally from like two or three feet on a side, all the way up to six feet. But the six-foot stuff, I’m just starting to do it now, because it involves making my own canvases, being in Boston, where I’m painting out of right now… but I never want to go back to being forced to paint small. I really, really like what you can do with a large surface.
GRAHAM: Any future ideas or projects that you have in mind?
CHMIELINSKI: Yeah. Well, I’m trying to get into residencies right now, so my idea is to leave New York, where I know that my lack of self-control is kind of… it’s delaying my development as an artist. And it’s been amazing, I’ve met good people, I joined the gallery Envoy, on Chrystie and Delancey, so that’s a liaison. So my next step is to get out… hopefully not have to pay for it, if I get these residencies, they’ll give me a stipend or whatever, and then just work on my art until I feel like I’m ready to get into an MFA program. I’d like to have that studio program, just because I’ve never done it, and I think that it is an important place to have a think tank of ideas and talk with other artists. In terms of actual specific development in my own painting, I think that I’m on the right track, so I just want to see where that goes.
GRAHAM: So you’ve been living in New York since you graduated from NYU?
CHMIELINSKI: I’ve been living here since NYU started, so… in total, it’s been five and a half years.
GRAHAM: Do you think you’d want to go back to Boston?
CHMIELINSKI: I think that I need to leave the United States. I’m trying right now to get into a two-year residency in Amsterdam. If that doesn’t work out, then I’m going to try for one in Japan. And then, for living after the fact, I’m kind of… I kind of just jump into things, so I’ve been looking at the artists and designers who live in Antwerp, and I know nothing about the place except that it’s small. I think it would be really nice, and I like how across the board of fashion and art, there’s a really nice embrace of both beauty and challenging ideas, and so it’s approachable but it’s also grappling… it’s also pushing the line subtly, which I think is also my inclination. I like that it’s small, and I can’t get too lost, and I also like that temperament there. It’s kind of like the Northeast, but it also has a richer culture.
GRAHAM: Last question. Do you have a few words that you would use to describe your aesthetic?
CHMIELINSKI: Yeah. “Sensation”… I have to throw “figure” in there. I don’t like the word “abstract,” so “exact,” “clean,” “painterly”… I guess… Oh, I hate that word actually. I hate the word “painterly.” But I really think that I am a painter’s painter. So I guess it’s painterly. But I hate the word.
Text and photography by Annabel Graham for Pas Un Autre. Visit Winston Chmielinsky's website to view more of his artwork.
(Annabel Graham is a photographer and writer who travels regularly between Los Angeles, New York, and Paris – she has worked for Interview Magazine as well as the Paris Review, and she is a regular contributor to Pas Un Autre and Autre Quarterly. Read all here articles for Pas Un Autre here)