School’s Out for the Summer: Paul Winstanley’s Spare Portraits of Empty Art Schools

Mar 29, 2016 6:28PM

In 2011 and 2012, Paul Winstanley traveled throughout England, Scotland, and Wales, visiting every degree-awarding art school in Britain. He photographed the interiors, which, on account of it being summer break, were unpopulated and eerily quiet. A selection of these images forms “Art School: New Prints and Panel Paintings,” currently on view at Alan Cristea Gallery in London.

Initially, Winstanley’s subject might seem quotidian, even mundane. Yet the empty art school studios summon a curious power. Art School 43 (2015) looks like it could be a set for a modern horror film. Art School V (2016) looks like a page from a contemporary design catalog or a snapshot from an episode of Mad Men.

In others, the stillness is stirring. The works, which are either oil paintings on wood panels or prints made from a combination of wood block and photogravure, are richly hued and minimal. The majority have an airy feel and a crisp aesthetic that emphasizes the geometric elegance of window frames and the natural beauty of afternoon light. Frame 1 (2016), rendered in dreamy shades of sunshine yellow, is downright cheerful.

This isn’t the first time Winstanley has portrayed uninhabited spaces; he is known for paintings of abandoned buildings, interiors, and walkways. His choice to focus on contemporary art schools is partly a political one. In Britain, as elsewhere, government cuts to art funding have radically changed the educational landscape. Some of the studios featured in “Art School” no longer exist.

But Winstanley’s series doesn’t just draw attention to this ongoing decline—it pays homage to the art school concept and the creative potential it represents. The art school model, Winstanley points out, was practically invented in the United Kingdom in the early 1960s, and it has since “become the default model for art school education all over the world,” he has said. “At a very simple level I just wanted to show what that looked like.” What better way to preserve a sacred space than to reveal its value and publicize its beauty, especially while there’s still time to save it.

Bridget Gleeson

Art School: New Prints and Panel Paintings” is on view at Alan Cristea Gallery, London, Mar. 17–May 7, 2016.

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