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A Robust And Fantastic Nature
Asian Art News, November - December 2009
The Bali-based Swedish artist Richard Winkler has created an earthy, magical world that embraces a wide range of influences. His bright, bold paintings are a visual feast accessible to people from many cultures.

In an art world in which global icons and social messages rule, it is always a pleasant surprise to come across artists who escape classification: those who don't follow contemporary art trends or discourse, who are neither modern nor care if they are called passé, but make their own grooves so deeply and so earnestly that they eventually come to attention. Such is the case of Swedish artist Richard Winkler, 40, who has been living and painting in Bali for 12 years, a place that has inspired him greatly.

Richard Winkler's talent and originality lie in his treatment of a single and, apparently, most ordinary topic: life. But he shows "life" in his paintings in "fantastic" ways that have a strange, yet compelling appeal: plants growing, swelling into tubers and invading the canvas in evocations of the primeval natural world; limbs that multiply and bellies that expand into weird images of a surreal environment that conjures up the idea of human origins. Looking into one of Winkler's paintings is to enter into an imaginary world that is unique to him, yet addresses all of us.

Because, of course, even though we may not give it much thought, we all know that plants grow! We have all felt the breadth of a mother's bosom. We men have all felt or dreamed of the thigh and belly of a woman lover. And women have all felt or dreamed of their body transforming itself under the pull of life. This is what life as embodied living is all about. It is also what Winkler's paintings are fundamentally all about.

Are the aspects of "real" life that Winkler "talks about" so banal that most of us "forget" about them? Life as aliveness, life as fecundity…is it so present that we tend to be oblivious, as it goes on unnoticed while time makes its mark? Is it on account of this banal presence that most artists represent life only in its events and situations, rather than its process? To answer such questions Winkler views life as not "what is" but "what becomes." What changes, grows, transforms itself and in doing so, transforms everything within and around it-the ultimate presence.

Winkler captures this presence by turning the real into the "fantastic." By showing life forms most of us see as stable, as a ceaseless process of growth. In his works, limbs swell and multiply, skin invades canvas, flowers proliferate, body parts mingle, and of course all produce fruits, fruits of love that are also fruits of nature. Through these fantastic images Winkler expresses the essence of the banal "real" that is life.

There are degrees of the "fantastic" in Winkler's paintings. In some works it is subdued and subsumed into the "paradisiac." This is the case in his Balinese series, where he shows life at rest, at points where it has achieved a balance of sorts. Flowers and fruit appear, terraced rice fields glitter against a background of majestic mountains, while men and women amble leisurely amidst light and greenness. The "life" of plants and bodies has thus paused, stopped short of growing and swelling into the "fantastic" figures of his other paintings.

But is the theme here really Bali? No! Winkler is not intent on depicting the fabled island, even less on lauding it. Bali is no more than a pretext. What he has painted is Eden: nature as a state of mind, a dream of harmony. Offerings, volcanoes, and rice fields are iconic elements of a dream, an idyllic environment in which the natural, the human, and the divine coexist in harmony.

These paradise works, however, are not the ones where the artist is at his best; here he keeps his "fantastic" urge under check. He is truer to himself in the paintings in which limbs and body parts grow and multiply as if they were plants; in which lines obey their own hidden logic to create ever new, throbbing signs of life in which the unbridled feminine reigns-the Primal Mother of yore, whose breasts and buttocks are so large and distended that she bears no resemblance to the objectified female of a male-dreamed world, but conjures up instead the essence of life's fertility.

The best exponents of Winkler's "fantastic" works are those paintings that represent women as nature and in nature. They are plump and fleshy, yet their plumpness is not a ploy of social criticism, as it is, for example, to Botero. Nor is it a means to convey an idea of desire-as it is so often in Western art. They appear as "life," at once plants and mothers. This is why their waists expand and limbs grow and multiply, as if from fertile soil. It is a natural process on which Winkler expounds, so natural that it gives birth to the fantastic.

There is no doubt Richard Winkler belongs to the privileged group of artists who don't need to "think" to know what they have to say. Once the brush is in hand, what they have to express just comes out, without having to pay attention to style, concept, or message. They are strangers to tricks of intellectual distancing and creative awareness. They are driven by pure "urge." Yet, when looking at Winkler's "fantastic" works, one is pursued by the insistent question: How does such an urge come about?

To answer that, one has to dig into the artist's past. As a child, he says that he suffered from a rare bone disease: "I could feel, and literally see," he recalls, "layers of bone tissues growing over my limbs.I had knobs of bone springing up all over me. And they had to be cut. So I was operated on, time and again…until I stopped growing, when I was around 18. And this probably accounts for my obsession with the body. It started very early, when I was still a very small boy, five or six years old. I was at the doctor all the time, to be X-rayed, cut, and the like. When they operated on me, they didn't put me to sleep. I was awake. I could see what they were doing to me. This gave me a peculiar awareness of the self: on the one side there is my body, a machine, and on the other side, there is my soul, through which I can see this machine at work. This separation in me, I first felt intuitively-painfully so, before I could rationalize and intellectualize it. This created another highly polarized duality in me: between what I feel and what I think."

To the painful awareness of nature "inside" was added the knowledge of nature 'outside.' "I grew up in an apartment," says Winkler, "but at the back of our building there was a sort of wild botanical garden, full of fruit and flowers. My friend and I would always play there. I would pick some flowers and take them to our balcony, where I could see them grow and, in some cases, bear fruit. I was fascinated. During vacations, I would also go to my grandparents' summerhouse in the Swedish countryside. My grandmother was very fond of flowers; she told me their names and showed me how they grew. There was a forest nearby. I liked spending time there walking among the trees and dead trunks and picking up the fallen leaves. My hero then was my grandfather. I imitated him down to the way I dressed my hair. It is he who showed me how to draw."

Wild flowers outdoors, wild bone growth in his own body: these experiences gave rise to the very peculiar "presence" of nature in Winkler's psyche. His urge to represent growth and florescence, both human and natural, undoubtedly had its origins there.

He did not have to wait till he got to Bali-the luxuriant island par excellence-to turn the urge into fantastic images of nature. "My early works," he says, "those made upon completion of my art studies in Stockholm , already bore the signs of life that have now become my hallmark. At the junction of abstraction and figuration, they often consist of figures that look both like limbs and tubers."

When he discovered Bali in 1997, it came as a shock, a shock of affinities. He arrived there almost by accident, after he had married his old pen pal, who happened to be an Indonesian. They had to find a place to live, and decided on Bali. What did he find there? The imaginary world of bulbs and tubers he had painted in the works from his early Swedish period! The real natural world that now surrounded him was kin to his most private subconscious obsession. This was extraordinary.

In the lush nature of Bali, Winkler experienced the persistent urge to express life in visual forms. It is no surprise that Winkler hovered for a time, in his works, between Eden and the wild "fantastic." As he explains his process,"…I tried to find and to construct an ideal world. This world is what I want to see, what I want to be." The result is the "Eden-Bali."

Yet, Richard Winkler is capable of self-criticism as much as self-appreciation: "If I go too far in those Balinese-style paintings," he says, "I start losing my 'forms'-the 'original me' starts to disappear in all those details."

Winkler is at his artistic best when he is bothered by neither details nor concepts. "I never have a clear idea of what I am doing," he says, "I work from inside out. If people ask me why such and such a form is round, or why there is a fat finger, I cannot answer. I just feel I have to do what I do. People may like it or not. It is their problem, not mine. I just want to say: this is me."

It is not nature, as such, that Winkler eulogizes. Now reaching maturity, he views nature as primarily female. His works are all odes to the primal Mother. "Be it fruit, flowers, or humans, the same process is at work," he says. " The process of fertility, borne by the female only. The female represents life; the male does not; he simply contributes with sperm, he 'injects.' When she becomes pregnant, her whole body changes, including her brain. When she feeds after birth, she becomes a machine that produces milk. The male, on the contrary, does not even feel fatherhood in the first year of his child's life. This is why I put the woman up there, on top." I should say, in closing , that the cosmic Mother that Winkler so lauds also takes the shape of a real person-Regine, the woman who brought him to Indonesia. "We had long been pen-friends, as was still the fashion," he says, "We had exchanged photographs. So why not meet? We decided to do so in Sri Lanka. Regine, then a young business executive, told her family that she had to attend a meeting. But the meeting was with me. So we met, and it was so romantic that we decided to laugh it out. This is how we fell in love…married, and came to Bali."

Relentless outgrowth of bones, balcony flowers, and Regine's lithe body combine in Richard Winkler's mind to create the fantastic world that is uniquely his. His career now takes his art from Bali to Singapore. And it should soon reach other shores, given its vibrant and eminently transplantable natural appeal.


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