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Not Quite Real

The Surreal Photo-Paintings of Robin Winfield

by Rebecca M. Alvin
Top Image: Marlene’s World (Fujiflex Crystal Archival print & acrylic on panel 24”x30”)

The work of the photographer and the painter are similar in some ways. Both forms are concerned with space, light, composition, and subject. But while both can be created in representational and abstract modes, photography’s intrinsic relationship to its documentary origins give it an inherent connect to the real that paintings do not share. In other words, photography always has the possibility of direct representation of reality, and therefore, when the photographer alters that representation, it has meaning in and of itself. So when an artist like Robin Winfield combines photography and painting, there is an almost automatic shift in how we look at the work.

“I like that surreal feeling where you’re looking at something but it doesn’t quite make sense, spatially” she explains.” I like the feeling that it’s much more painterly, and then you do question, like what is going on, if you’re not aware that there is even a photograph. Sometimes people don’t realize there’s a photograph,” she adds.

Venetian Dock to Door (Fujiflex Crystal Archival print & acrylic on panel 20”x16”)

Winfield travels the world to photograph places that intrigue her, most often focusing on architectural elements, doors and entryways, in particular. Work in her show at Rice Polak Gallery, opening this weekend, includes images taken in San Francisco, Italy, and India, among other places. “I love the city, and also little towns in places, like when we were in Turkey we went to these little tiny towns. But mostly I like the city because of the diversity of styles in a city, especially like a place like Istanbul. You get these very old, ancient temples and mosques, and then you get the brand-new modern buildings,” she explains. She travels as often as she can and says of her photographic selection process, “Mostly I’m looking for anything unusual or beautiful, magical, repeating patterns, shadows, and that kind of thing. That’s what draws my eye. I’ll go and I’ll just walk in a city [and photograph] and then choose what I can use from all my photos.”
Winfield says she has a long list of places to photograph, including Morocco and Portugal. She lives in California now, but lived in Wellfleet for many years in the late 1970s and 1980s “with somebody who was a local and raised oysters,” she says with a laugh. And she has spent time on the Cape with her family, most of whom are also artists, since childhood.

Her relationship with the gallery is also a long one. “I started out actually with Marla [Rice of Rice Polak Gallery] at the Hopkins Gallery, which was a co-op gallery, when they first opened in Wellfleet, and so I’ve been with Marla probably for 28 years,” she recalls. Unfortunately, Winfield will not be traveling to attend her opening this year, though. Her work is being shown at Rice Polak in a group show, along with work by Ellen LeBow, Christine Triebert, Patrick Webb, and Elli Crocker.

Winfeield’s photographs manage to capture a sense of place, even as the photographic evidence of that particular environment is painted over in parts. Sometimes it is through the lines and shapes, as in The Harem Topkapi Palace. Sometimes the subject matter evokes a response, like the nostalgia for the bygone era of Hollywood’s Golden Age we feel looking at Marlene’s World, which looks like a boarded up old movie palace with its Marlena Deitrich poster and abandoned facade.

Istanbul Modern (Fujiflex Crystal Archival print & acrylic on panel 30”x24”)

But it is often through her color schemes that we connect. The reds and and blues draw us in with Venetian Dock to Door, while the painted elements of the building and sky add a sense of decay and texture to the image, in striking contrast to the rich hues of the water, boat, and doors. This is not photorealism, nor is it realist photography. And therein lies its appeal. In placing the real within the context of the unreal, surrealism thrives in its purest sense.

“I love to travel, and I think especially now it’s important for artists and people to get out there and be goodwill ambassadors in this world, and get out there and see what’s going on in the rest of the world, as well,” she says. “I don’t know that that makes it into my work at all, but I would like it to.”

The entryways and closed doors that are such strong elements of her body of work, as well as the lack of people in most of her images, have a mystery to them, inviting us to wonder what’s behind those doors and where everyone has gone. At the same time, they can also be seen as elements of a quiet hopefulness; what is behind that door, and could it be something marvelous?
Robin Winfield’s work will be on view at Rice Polak Gallery, 430 Commercial St., Provincetown, August 16 – September 5. There will be an opening reception on Friday, August 17 at 7 p.m. For more information, call 508.487.1052 or visit

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Ginger Mountain

Ginger Mountain (MS Communications Media, BA Fine Arts/Teaching Certification K-12) has been part of the graphic design team at Provincetown Magazine since 2008. Ginger has worked as a creative director, individual contractor, and freelance designer with clients representing many areas —business software, consumer products, professional services, entertainment, and network hardware to name just a few — providing creative layout and development of a wide range of print media content. Her clients ranged from small local businesses to large corporations and Fortune 500 companies, from New Hampshire to Georgia

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