Allan Winkler’s Biography
Allan Winkler’s talents flow from a deep and winding river source, whose branches seem to have no limit. Besides cutting paper and metal images, he is a ceramic sculptor, a painter, a quilt maker, a clothes designer, a batik artist. He has played drums for jazz groups and rock-and-roll bands, acted in plays, made prize-winning films and videotapes, taught art in college, written articles and lengthy literary journals. The only skill at which Winkler does not seem to excel is at mowing the lawn. If you saw Winkler’s lawn you would know what I mean.
Most of all, though, Winkler is a discoverer, appreciator, understander and collector of the finest kinds of art there is, the art of the forgotten, the naive, the isolated and the self-taught. The kind of artist who sets up a stand outside of his trailer on rural Highway 50 to sell little whitewashed doll chairs, custom birdhouses and the portraits of American presidents and movie stars he has been painting for fifty years on pieces of cardboard with poster paint. Some of these so-called “naives”, like Jesse Howard of Fulton, Missouri, and the Reverend Howard Finster of Georgia, have achieved national fame for their visionary paintings and sculptures. Others labor in obscurity. Winkler has visited many of them, on trips through the South and Kansas: Moses Tolliver, Finster, Alva Dexhimer. Though scarcely aware of each other, these isolated artists burn with a kind of self-knowledge and a near religious fervor, and a love for pattern and detail that unites them to each other. They are all washed in the blood of the lamb.
In his own artwork, Winkler has taken a little from each, transforming, grappling. He is not a folk artist himself, far from it. A child of television and of the near-northern Chicago suburbs, Winkler has closer ties to Beaver Cleaver than Huckleberry Finn. He grew up on the long, sandy avenues of Lincolnwood, where the railroad tracks dead end in the parking lot of the Jewel Supermarket. A graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute, he has the academic credentials any artist needs, reads books standing up in bookstores, attends art openings. He has done stints as a ceramics artist at the prestigious Archie Bray in Montana and Bemis Foundation in Omaha, Nebraska. But early exposure to the Chicago Imagists has turned Winkler forever from the conventions of “modern” art. Those urban surrealists, from the time of their first “Hairy Who” show in 1965, set the art world upside down by raising folk art, the drawings of schizophrenics, and the marquees of pin ball machines over the brushwork of Rembrandt and Titian. Now Winkler, too, looks among unusual mediums, among thrift stores and junk shops, searching for a way to express the urban-suburban truth he knows so well.
And thus we come to Winkler’s paper cutouts. Cut paper, as far as we know, is a universal world medium – Chinese Peasants, Ukrainian folk artists, San Bernardino school children all make them. Though cheap to devise, and requiring the simplest of tools, the light shines through a well-made paper cutout as beautifully as the rose window of the cathedral at Chartres. Hence the cutout’s allure for those with few possessions, but the profoundest of visions to convey, that of a simple, happy existence. Contrary to what that irascible rationalist Plato said, it is the unexamined life that is most worth living.
Skillful with the Exacto blade, Winkler populates the mythological world of his own cutouts with the products of his imagination and of his keen observations of contemporary life. A favorite subject is the first kiss, a high school memory that is ever renewed when two people find each other. Another is the happy dog who runs without leash or collar through a patterned sky in which hands like those of Allstate Insurance float and bless. Winkler’s people ignite with tiny flickering cool flames, the flames of their spiritual longing, of their separation from the comforts of companionship, or of their love for others. They do not wear their hearts on their sleeves, but clearly visible, pumping within their own see-through chests. It is an elemental observation that while some of Winkler’s figures blaze inwardly, others burn outside their skins, and perhaps these others are more than humans, but ghosts, spirits and minor deities, such as wood or parking-lot nymphs. “All of my pieces look a little strange,” Winkler says, “but that goes back to that bizarre sense of beauty we are all in the Midwest brought up unconsciously to have.”
The English philosopher Bertrand Russell once complained of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche that while he despised Nietzsche ’s world and everything he stood for he could not fault it, because it was complete and hermetic in every detail. Gazing into Allan Winkler’s cutouts you, too, will find a world complete and hermetic in every detail, but you will not despise it. Instead, you will want to wander through the paisley spaces, stand under its bare-branched trees and shooting stars, pat its dogs, commiserate with its people, and call them your friends. And when you have to go, you will feel sad, but full. There is more to the here and now than automobiles and spread sheets, can openers and day care, Winkler’s cutouts hint. There is love, there is feeling, the smell of the night, the joy of small lives well-lived. -Peter von Ziegesar