Figuring the Self: A Conversation with Adam Winnie

Photographs by Peterson Worrell, Staff Photographer


Adam Winnie working on a piece (“For Dear Life”) to be featured in the upcoming show “Figuring the Self” at Desotorow Gallery

In the days leading up to the opening of his new show Figuring the Self at Desotorow Gallery, Savannah artist Adam Winnie sat down with SAI Editor-in-chief Kayla Goggin in his home studio for a conversation about process, method, identity, the nature of violence, and the importance of experimentation.

[Adam and I began our conversation with a brief tour of the home he shares with his fiance, photographer Stacy Diehl, and a look at some of his recent and past works. We jumped right into a discussion of his choice in materials and techniques.]

Adam Winnie: My fiance Stacy has been teaching me a little bit of encaustic.
Kayla Goggin: Could you see yourself incorporating encaustic into your works?
AW: Maybe. I’m such a slow drawer and painter – that’s why I work in oils when I do paint – encaustic just dries so quickly. The initial drawing or painting of things – I’m just really.. I don’t know if detailed is the word – I guess part of it is just really trying to hone in on the craft of it. I don’t leave a lot to chance. I make sure there’s a lot that’s controlled in my work, as opposed to some artists whose works are all about leaving things to chance. I’m putting so much of my efforts into making these pieces that it’s one of the few things that can be controlled. If I’m going to try to convey something specific then I think I need that control.

KG: Is this something you’ve always done? I’ve read some previous articles about you: I found an article from 2003 where you described your process a bit. Obviously that was a decade ago so there must have been some sort of transition for you. Have you always been so controlled or is that something that started to come out as your work matured?
AW: No, it’s something that has come out the longer I’ve been working. Early on, before I really started working on technique, I was exploring more photography and sculpture works and things like that and those kind of transformed into these assemblage pieces. There was definitely a sense of craftsmanship to them but they were pretty rough around the edges. I wasn’t as concerned with the craft as I was with the message. Now I’m focused on balancing the two.

KG: I think that’s something a lot of artists struggle with, especially over time. I know the title of this show is Figuring the Self. Where did that title come from?
AW: Over the past 4 years I’ve been doing more – I wouldn’t say self-portraiture – but I’ve been using my own figure a lot more in my works. It’s something that’s constantly recurring. I think I chose to do it like that for several reasons. In the beginning with photography, it was just that I was the one that was available and I was comfortable with doing the sort of things that it would be a hard time getting others to do. I was doing some really weird stuff.

KG: So it gave you the freedom to experiment.
AW: Yeah, yeah. So as I started creating bodies of work that would sustain for a long time, everything just started to fall into place with using myself in my works. I’m speaking about my experiences, a distillation of my life. I think I wrote in my statement, “I can’t speak for somebody else, I can only speak for myself.” Just because I’m in the work, doesn’t necessarily mean the work is about me. I’m simply the carrier of the allegory.

KG: You’re the conduit that this message is coming through.
AW: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of universals in the human experience. Something I’m experiencing can be experienced by another person but not necessarily the experience itself – insight, fantasies, sensations, feelings can be transmitted through the work.

KG: Do you do much performance art? It seems like you’ve dabbled in everything.
AW: Not since coming down to Savannah. I was doing a lot more up in Michigan because there was more of an environment for it – there were more places that were open to more subversive, very raw, uninhibited performance. Some friends of mine owned a puppet theater and they loved my work so any time I wanted to do something they were game. I had a couple of performances in the basement studio I had in downtown Ann Arbor too. I was doing 5-6 performances a year at one point.

KG: Which, even for a performance artist, seems like it would be a lot.
AW: It was. It was a lot. Some stuff was planned out, some stuff wasn’t. But since moving down to Savannah four and a half years ago I don’t think I’ve done anything. It’s crazy.

KG: You’ve just been focusing more on drawing and painting then?
AW: Yeah. It’s tentative but I may be doing a performance during the Art March. If it’s going to happen, it’ll happen spontaneously, like without anybody knowing beforehand.

KG: Do you have any idea what you might do? Or is this totally organic?
AW: No, I need to spend some time in the space first. If I do decide to do something, I’ll figure it out while I’m hanging the show. That’s how I usually like to do it. I spend enough time in a space and things just come together. You’ll see the videos I’m going to be showing all took place in the same 10×10 room.

KG: Where was that room?
AW: It was one of the unused grad studios in [SCAD’s] Alexander Hall. The only things in the room when I went in were two pedestals. So that was all I used – a white pedestal and a black pedestal. It was a definite nod to Bruce Nauman. I love his work. It’s absurd and it’s nonsensical but it still has a lot that can be read into even if it’s really simple.

KG: Yeah, I think his works have a lot of depth, despite the simplicity. Very sensual, some of them. Is he one of your main influences?
AW: I wouldn’t say main influence, but he’s somebody I’ve been watching for a long time and I admire his work and what he’s bringing to the art world. There was another video artist – he’s just started getting into video – Michaël Borremans. He’s a figurative painter, but his paintings are very cinematic and his videos are very painterly. It’s almost like a moving painting. There’s usually not a lot of action happening, it’s mostly just holding still so you can see those subtle movements and it just plays on a long loop. It’s a video piece so it’s not static but it’s not really moving. What I liked about it is that it’s a work that can exist both passively and actively on the wall. So I was kind of shooting for something like that. Something that you could watch but you don’t have to watch because there’s not a whole lot happening. You can watch for a moment or spend some time with it and discover some little differences and those are the little rewards.

KG: Do you find that idea translates to your two dimensional works as well?
AW: I think so. I try to give the paintings and drawings this aesthetic punch so-to-speak that can bring you into the piece and create an instant memory. But if you spend more time with the work you can be rewarded with other complexities within it, whether it’s conceptual rigor or technique or what-have-you, I tried to put more into it than just that initial bang so to speak. I’m very suspect, unfortunately, of a lot of abstract artwork. While I’ve done a little in the past (semi-abstract but still a bit figurative) I couldn’t ever see myself going in that direction. I’m drawn to the figure too much. There’s much more that can be related with the figure and narratives than with an abstract artwork.

Adam Winnie in his home studio.

KG: I know you’ve said in the past that a lot of your works are about examining self identity, especially within – I think you phrased it “the current sociopolitical climate”. Do you feel that an abstract work can’t examine that in the same way that a figurative work can? How do you inject that idea into your figurative works?
AW: I think through the gestures and the interactions that the figure is involved within the images. That can carry those messages. But I think it’s more relatable because you have a person in them. Now that I’m working with these charcoal drawings and in life size or larger than life size, I hope that that strengthens the relate-ability a bit more because you’re seeing a person the same size as you, even if it’s in these poses that you may not see yourself in. Even though it’s become harder for me to draw on a large scale due to injuries I sustained from a motorcycle accident a few years ago, I seem to be making bigger and bigger works as time goes on. The piece [I’m currently working on] is going to be something like 15, 16 feet tall when it’s done. I use a lot of negative space so there’ll be a lot of negative space when it’s done. With these large drawings the negative space plays a very big role. With something of this scale I’m giving the figure some breathing room. I’m drawn to the cinematic, I’m drawn to works that you can step into. It’s about paring things down to the essentials.

KG: I definitely feel that with these works. From what I’ve seen of your previous works it seems like that negative space is ever increasing.
AW: Yeah, part of it is just paring things down to the essentials – so you can get right to the point but still be ambiguous at the same time. I think there’s a lot of power behind mystery and I know it seems strange that I’m trying to be to-the-point but ambiguous, but it makes sense to me.

 KG: It makes sense to me. Especially when you’re talking about giving a figure room to breathe, and room for people to actually enter into and sit with the work.
AW: Yeah, and you can definitely see a narrative within the work. It’s like the end of a second act or the beginning of the third act when things start to really happen. It’s kind of like – it’s right there and you don’t know what led up to it and you don’t know what’s going to happen next. There’s a sense of danger, there’s a sense of losing control..

KG: Do you have a specific narrative laid out in your head as you work?
AW: I do. There’s a lot of planning that goes into it, but I sometimes don’t like to say a whole lot about a specific work until a show or until I get some decent feedback on it. I want to see if it’s successful first.

KG: So does anything change for you after or during a show? When you actually see the piece in a space does that change the internal narrative that you have or is that completely set?
AW: By the time everything is up and hung, stuff is solidified. I stand back and I look at my works for just as much time as I do when I’m physically drawing. There’s a lot of self reflection so I think by the time of the reception everything is ready to go. For some reason after a show there’s always some depression that sets in because you work so hard towards this goal and then it happens and you have to have something else lined up or continue on with what you’re doing.. I really like having goals to work towards. I like to have a show set up once or twice a year and work towards those – especially now that there’s so much riding on it since this is what I’m doing full-time. Taking that step to being a full-time artist is really scary, there’s a lot of uncertainty. But there’s a time when you just have to take risks and I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without [my fiance] Stacy.

KG: I’m really excited about the video work and the installation of that because that’s not something I see a lot of in Savannah. I’d really like to see more –
AW: You’d think with the film school you’d see more but they’re working more towards commercial stuff and not so much experimental stuff. I had done a little bit of video before coming to SCAD but it was more for documenting performances I was doing in public or there was one video piece of just me walking in a loop and I’d project that at shows.

KG: So you tend towards the minimal?
AW: With the video stuff, yeah. It wasn’t until I had this Alt Media class with Todd Schroeder that I started looking at it as a means to an end. At first I was fumbling with it a little bit because I went into it not knowing what I was going to do with it yet and it took a little exploration before I decided I was going to continue on with my performance work and shoot the video as the finished piece. There’s something a little more freeing about that, but there’s an awkwardness to get over initially doing a performance by yourself. It’s – I’ve done a lot of weird stuff and having an audience doesn’t stop me. There’s actually this feeling of seeing yourself from above while you’re doing these things which allows you to do a lot more.. There’s a lot more you can do than you think you can with an audience.

KG: This reminds me of Marina Abramović and how she feeds off the crowd. She says it’s not possible for her to achieve what she wants to achieve without an audience watching.
AW:  I’m really drawn to her earlier stuff, a lot of the more violent works about using the body as the medium.. There’s another group of artists the Viennese Actionists.. they go into the depths of depravity so you don’t have to. It’s a catharsis kind of thing. I was more drawn to the ideas behind [their works] than the works themselves, the conceptualization of what they were doing.

KG: I feel like to some degree violence figures into your work. Maybe not any explicit violence, but blood and themes of external threats to the human body come up a lot.
AW: Yeah, that’s definitely there. Violence is inescapable and it’s a lot of times the result of fear. Lord of the Flies refers to fear as “mankind’s essential illness”, so that’s a recurrent theme in a lot of my works. Whether it’s fear itself or violence or violent.. There is so much beauty out there and so much greatness to experience, but it seems like there’s always going to be one person trying to take advantage of another person using whatever means they can. Whether that’s something we’re stuck with or something we grow out of as we evolve is beyond me but my work is a reflection of that. I’m definitely influenced by that.

KG: I think this goes back to what we were talking about earlier – issues of identity in the current sociopolitical climate.. [Violence] can become a part of your identity – how you react to it or how you perpetrate it depending on who you are.
AW: And you don’t have to show extreme violence for the sake of extreme violence or for the sake of shock, I think that’s another cop out too. It says something about the human psyche that movies like Saw are so popular. You don’t have to go to those extremes.

KG: Is there anything you want people to consider in particular when they’re attending the show Friday?
AW: I guess to take time digesting individual works. Try to spend time with them. I know openings can be crazy, but feel free to ask questions. I like talking about my work, I like when people are interested in my work, I like talking to other artists.

Figuring the Self will be up at Desotorow Gallery from December 3 – December 14. The opening reception will be during the First Friday Art March on December 6, 6-9PM. 


Kayla Goggin

Author: Kayla Goggin

Kayla Goggin is the editor of the Savannah Art Informer.

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