Elizabeth Winnel- Bigmouth
A Spotlite on Artist ELIZABETH WINNEL
By Lori Zimmer
If the eyes are the window to the soul, the lips are the window to expression–at least at the hand of painter Elizabeth Winnel. The Savannah-based artist is bringing her signature sexy lip paintings back to New York for her latest exhibition, appropriately entitled “Bigmouth” at Castor Gallery on the Lower East Side. Armed with oil paints, Winnel has made a name for herself with a body of edgy, photorealistic self-portraits that combine fashion, sensuality, and pop iconography into one.
But Winnel’s form of self-reflection is finely focused, featuring her pair of plump lips. In the tradition of Dali, Warhol, and Man Ray, Winnel’s oeuvre focuses on the mouth, as the symbol of expression, desire, and passion–which can be everything from enticing to foreboding to mischievous. With self-portraits of only lips, teeth, and tongue, Winnel challenges her viewers to submit to the Language of her Mouth, in painstakingly perfect and vibrant detail.
Lori Zimmer: Rather than signature self-portraiture, you’ve made a name for yourself focusing on one body part–your mouth. How did the lip portraits come about?
Elizabeth Winnel: Previously I had been working on a series of self-portraits that utilized abstract gestural marks as a platform from which to build upon or weave figures through. I enjoyed doing this work, but at a certain point it became formulaic, and there wasn’t a lot of room left for discovery. It led me to ask questions and experiment with the concept of less is more. Could I achieve the desired intention or outcomes with more ambiguous imagery?
LZ: What do you think that lips can convey that another choice–say, your eyes–could not?
EW: People often ask me if I will paint eyes next, the answer in short is “no.” Each part of our bodies has specific cultural associations within the lexicon of western culture. The eyes are the window of the soul, as we say. Eyes are embedded within a spiritual cultural meta-narrative. I can’t undo this, and I can’t reassign its meaning for us in the west, but I could use it should it suit my intent. The connotations of the mouth better suit my interests. I’m interested in delving into how we like to look at sexy things, scopophilia. When it comes down to it, the paintings are just images of a mouth, but the manipulation of color or changes in expression create new connotations. They start to challenge the viewer in different ways than if I just painted a sexualized portrait.
LZ: How has your work evolved over the years?
EW: I’ve gone through many changes of mediums, styles, and influences, but my interest in the use of the body and representation of the female form in culture has always been there.
LZ: Do you think your work now is more relatable to the viewer than traditional self-portraiture?
EW: I think relatability comes less from the self-portrait aspect. They are self-portraits, but that recognition of myself is at odds with the loaded iconographic image of a mouth. The mouth ends up teetering between existing as a symbol and as a detached part of me. Removed from the context of the body, the mouth is objectified. Through painting it over and over, it’s also commodified. I’d like to shift relatability from the recognition of an image or person to the ensuing conversation that they create.
LZ: Your pieces differ in color, but also expression. Are the lips “saying” something?
EW: It’s less about saying something and more about asking questions and searching for meaning. Shifts in color and expression are propositions I’m throwing out there to find the line between attraction and repulsion, beauty and vulgarity, provocation and banality. How others respond to the work is really what propels it all forward.
LZ: For “Bigmouth,” you’ve created a new body of work that complement your signature larger pieces called “Mirror Kisses”–tell me about these.
EW: The mirror kisses are created in response to how people were directly interacting with my paintings, and also an attempt to wrestle with selfie culture. I’ve seen a lot of people mimicking the expression of the mouths when confronted with them. It was an unanticipated viewer response. People were also taking selfies with the mouth paintings, and they would pose mimicking the mouth. This layering, exchange, and form of public performance around the work is kind of an interesting trend, and the mirrors are a direct way to confront the viewer and hopefully challenge to think about what role they play as audience, participants, and creators of meaning themselves.
LZ: You’re now based in Savannah, Georgia. How does the art scene differ there as opposed to your former home of New York?
EW: It’s a great place to get a lot of work done. Space is affordable. The city is relaxed. When I returned to Savannah, I was welcomed with open arms to a community who genuinely was excited to have me come back. The artists, curators, gallerists, and SCAD community are closely knit. We love and support each other like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I feel loved within my community of peers, collaborators, mentors, teachers, friends, fellow artists, students, everyone involved in this scene. It’s a very genuine place. I love New York, but for now Savannah is the right place for me to be.
LZ: What other self-portrait artists are you a fan of?
EW: Cindy Sherman is an all time favorite, although we could chat about how her work is and isn’t self-portraiture for days. Mark Quinn’s Self (Blood Head) makes me smile.
LZ: What do you have coming up?
EW: I have shows and projects coming up in early spring, late summer, and winter of next year. Details soon to be announced, so stay tuned.
Elizabeth Winnel is a Savannah-based oil painter. Her latest exhibition, Bigmouth, is on display from January 15th – February 8th, 2015 at Castor Gallery, 254 Broome Street on the Lower East Side.
Written by Lori Zimmer
Portrait by Adam Kuehl, Images by Elizabeth Winnel, Courtesy of Elizabeth Winnel
Design by Francesca Rimi