Capturing Texas

Seeing Roger Winter's earlier cubistic paintings -- and then the current sun-dappled views of his native Texas -- is like returning to the town of one's childhood after being in the modern world.

As for Winter himself, you'd expect to find the sandy-haired, round-faced, affable man behind the counter of a hardware store rather than before an easel or the classes he teaches at Southern Methodist University and has taught at the Dallas Museum of Fine Art and the Fort Worth Arts Center.

He has been the subject of two PBS network productions, and recently SMU exhibited 13 of his large-scale oils, some of them seen in the "Closer Look" exhibition of the Houston Museum of Contemporary Art which showcased seven of the area's "finest representational artists."

Winter's works were commissioned for San Antonio's "Sphere of Art" during the city's HemisFair and are at the Dallas Museum of Fine Art, in Oklahoma, and in private collections in the Southwest, New York, and Washington, D.C. The Isaac Delgado Museum in New Orleans held a one-man showing of Winter's works, which today are far removed from the earlier photographically derived, architecturally structured collages of a dog, a staircase, his son, children's chairs, and a window, vertically or horizontally placed or floating by.

In his more surrealistic days, past and present fragments intermingled. Today his painting touch the viewer with a wistful desire to be a part of the people, places, and houses in the friendly world of "realism" as Roger Winter sees it.

In the soft drawl of Denison, Texas, his birthplace, he explains his move from the disjunctive imagery of his earlier period to the "things remembered" quality of his approach today.

"My earlier works have figures and objects used as fetishes with no logic to the relationships between images. In the most recent paintings, space and time is unified, and subjects are spontaneously chosen; Texas houses, landscapes, parts of England which I visited, my Dallas neighborhood, people I know, cars, trains, and places.

"And the brush work is important. My work in 1971 was very subjective, combining surrealism and cubism, and seemed unhappy to me. I moved away from that because it didn't seem to fit me any more."

His 56-inch-by-120-inch oil "Streets" and the 60-by-76-inch "Highlander Marching Band" recently on view of SMU's University Gallery are examples of what William Jordan, chairman of the Fine Arts Department, sees as "the ineffable lure" of Winter's works, "like the evocations of a skillful novelist." The faded and mellowed colorations of the leaves and grass and roofs of "Streets" and their intriguing configurations transform what could have been a few feet of sidewalk into a bit of neighborhood.

The life within the houses is easily identifiable even though no figures appear in the painting. One responds to the possibility -- nay, probability -- that a mother is laying the cloth for supper and a boy is seeking a peanut butter sandwich. "The Highlander Marching Band" (of a high school in Dallas) is a charmer to any passerby who has stopped at a schoolyard, beguiled by the flashing legs and earnest faces of the teen-agers huffing their way through the convoluted turns of band practice. (Among the marchers was Winter's son.)

The emergence of the artist, whose mother said he liked to draw even as a toddler, came when he first studied at the University of Texas at Austin.

"I used to think artists were people who had all died in Europe a long time ago. I found at UT that there were vital people there, men and women, who were artists."

And the strength of imagery, which still mingles with a "down homeness" in his work today -- did it come from his days with David McManaway, Jim Love, Bill Komodore? These and others formed a coterie around the late Douglas McAgy, then director of the earlier Contemporary Museum of Art in Dallas, and later in Washington. They were artists about whom SMU's Dr. Jordan said "the commonality of their sensibilities could have been cultivated nowhere but in Texas," even though McManaway "sauntered in from Arkansas," and Komodore "drove in like a Gypsy from Florida."

"I think I've always been 'representational,' painting things as they looked, rather than inventing them," says the relaxed artist as we sit in the lounge of the university gallery, he in open-throated shirt. Some questions he ponders about before replying, but answers about his motivations come readily. "I think if you're going to survive in the medium of painting you have to go through everything, fantasies as well as objective representation. I do have to have an emotional attachment to the subject I select." Which is a clue as to why even so start a subject as the pyramids of Mexico, which seem to beckon to the mother and boy approaching them, emanate a romanticized softness and do not loom forbiddingly from the canvass.

"During our family trip to Mexico a severe thunderstorm came up and one of my sons was lost. We spent nearly two hours searching and calling for him and found him taking shelter between the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon. Those pyramids became emotionalized for me."

To paint "Horchow's Children," commissioned by the mother for the father's birthday, Winter became a swimmer and a diver in the family pool, the scene had chosen. The children become universal, immersed in the languid coolness of the pool under the tree-filtered sun. The leaves of the trees, still in the Texas heat, nevertheless breathe forth the rhythm of nature's strength, with the distinct colorations of Winter's touch: yellow, some touched with the clay and earth tones of his images of leaves and grass.

Yet drabness is totally absent. Why?

"They used to stay," the artist replies with almost an impish grin, "that Picasso's blue period occurred because blue was cheaper. . . . No, I think you see them as different because of what they're related to. There's almost always a predominance of white coming from the 'overlit' daylight we have in Texas. it washes and softens, but it causes you to squint. It's important in that it links me to reality, to what's out there.

He points out the window where the afternoon sun forms a huge white patch against the Williamsburg red brick of SMU's architectural style. "Look how that white is gleaming." His pleasure in the view is like that of one contemplating a friend or a child. "The same sun is doubtless being modulated in Iowa or Massachusetts to a less stark entrance into the landscape."

The "squiggles" which give Winter's leaves, branches and grass each a life of their own are also a part of his rootedness in the land, configurations which entice the viewer to seek what each hides in its own form behind the density of paint.

"The scene of the painting is something that's there in nature, and I use it as directly as possible. but on the surface I do invent and change relationships, something which might be suggested by the movement of a branch . . . the 'squiggles' you see. I find this kind of 'seeing,' and it is regionalistic, I think, in the work of other painters and sculptors of this part of the country. I found them, too, on gravestones that were made by black slaves in the early South . . . the way the pieces of wood of their markets fit together . . . configurations not unlike mine and other artists here."

On Winter the impact of Texas in undeniable, even though he painted "opulently," like the traditions of England when he was there. "Texas has no traditions like that," he laughs. "If the country houses and barns were torn down tomorrow nobody would really care." But the south coast of Texas with its "primal, stripped down feeling of sand, sea, and sky," to Winter "engenders an almost religious relationship among some people, as they relate to nature. Aransas Pass (a coastal town near Corpus Christi) is what a church ought to be."

Could this be why people use words like "mysticism," and "haunting" about Roger Winter's work? He digs his hands into his back pockets and says, almost doggedly, "I have a love of facts. I don't make pretty."

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