Detail shot: Winston Chmielinski, The Player, 2020. Image courtesy the artist.
We catch up with Berlin-based artist Winston Chmielinski to discuss working "from the periphery," making paints from raw minerals, and what every emerging artist should do when starting their career.
Winston Chmielinski is known for his figurative, dreamlike paintings and portraits; however, the artist is currently taking a hiatus from his typical studio practice and delving into new horizons—from abstract color fields created with raw mineral-based pigments to digital art and blockchain technology.
Winston has been exhibited internationally, including at the 2017 Venice Biennale (as part of the Antarctic Pavilion), arguably the world’s most prestigious exhibition. He's also worked with Ai Weiwei, the iconic Chinese dissident artist. About his own mixed Chinese-Polish-American background, Winston says his cultural heritage informs his work by drawing him to the "edges." It's an important perspective for an artist to have, but also a condition he didn't choose, per se.
Having now lived in Germany for the better part of a decade, Winston is investigating new concepts of “belonging,” as well as exploring notions of rarity, value, and their respective manifestations in raw color and natural pigments.
We caught up with Winston to discuss his current work, his advice for emerging artists and how one residency in France completely—and unexpectedly—changed his artistic trajectory.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Left: Portrait of Winston Chmielinski. Right: Detail shot of When You Let Go, 2016. Oil and acrylic on canvas and wood, 60 x 70 cm. Images courtesy the artist.
AA: What originally brought you to Berlin?
WC: I've been in Berlin since 2014, but I still find myself lying to Germans about how long I’ve been here because my German is still so bad. I speak French pretty well, and some Cantonese and Mandarin, but my German is by no means fluent.
I came here because I was living in New York and I had a show in Berlin— I intended to stay for three months, just to make the paintings, but the studio that I got was something like six times bigger than my apartment in New York. I had the option of extending it past three months, so I went for it. It completely opened up the possibility of what a studio practice can be when you have space...and when your work previously was about not having space.
I started painting and showing my work when I was still in high school. I was already posting work online in 2004 or so, and I actually had a pretty good following early on. So, when I entered college, I was kind of already determined to be an artist because I had so much motivation from those early eyes and that positive feedback.
I went to the Gallatin School, which is part of NYU— it’s quite small and you can select your concentration and every class you take, basically. At the same time, though, I was totally living the artist life. I found a shared studio space on Ludlow street with 12 other artists and I actually moved out of NYU housing because it was so expensive.
So I moved out of NYU housing, and into the studio full time. I would go to the gym across the street to take a shower every day. My living situation in the studio was a total squat— but I only paid $200 a month. Maybe $150? Those were the days.
Leah Dixon—whose an artist I've always really admired because she's so ahead of the game— was the one who made the studio happen for 11 other artists. So I was really getting the whole Lower East Side-New York experience when I was just 18 or 19 years old.
I only spent two and a half years at NYU— I concentrated in philosophy and dance. And then I studied in Shanghai and in Beijing. A year before I went to NYU, I also studied in France, so I was able to basically transfer a lot of credits and get out of school a year and a half early. I stayed in New York for another six months and then I went to Berlin. And I’ve been here ever since.
Winston Chmielinski, Hardest Water, 2016. Oil, acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 59 x 47 x 2 cm.
AA: Your cultural heritage is both Chinese and Polish, which is quite unique. Do you think that’s played a role in your artistic development?
WC: I definitely think it has, I know it has. I also know it's completely shaped who I am. We live in such a visual domain, as humans, that even if you're born in America, but you look like you're from somewhere else, it shapes the way that you see yourself.
So, on the plus side, I've always been able to chameleon through many different places, to my advantage. On the ambivalent side, I've never really felt a strong attachment to a home or to anything geographically— or culturally—stapled-down, in a sense. And that's given me a lot of flexibility.
I think that I'm almost too comfortable in the periphery. I tend to always gravitate towards edges.
I can see how my background has shaped pretty much every aspect of my life and especially my work. I was really interested in painting a certain way, for example, and everyone else was not really into it at the time. And then, as soon as they got into the thing that I was doing, I was like, “Done! Over.” And then I moved onto the next thing. So now everyone is interested in what I was doing before, but now I’m into blockchain.
I do think I've made it more difficult for myself because I kind of get off on not belonging. And I think, only in my 30s, am I beginning to experience belonging on a deeper level. I've fixated on the visual realm because I painted for a decade and so I'm a very visual person. And now I'm experiencing that belonging can happen on every level—and when it happens at a deeper level, it's usually more surprising and maybe more encompassing.
I feel like some people are fated to kind of get obsessed with balancing things out. Maybe that's part of the peripheral experience.
Left: Winston Chmielinski, Ultramarine, pigment, beeswax, tree resin, linseed oil on linen, 40 x 30 x 2 cm. Right: Winston Chmielinski, 2020, acacia resin, beeswax, honey, oil, pigment on linen, 40 x 30 x 2 cm. Images courtesy the artist.
AA: You’ve been making your own pigments and paints from minerals. How did that start and why?
WC: I would say this one residency that I did in western France, the Alfred Klots International Residency through Mica (Maryland Institute, College of Art). I was there for two months, and it was the first time actually where I was in the countryside with all this greenery around me. Someone else at the residency named Felicia was like Gaia incarnate—she was picking herbs every night for dinner and was essentially our chef-in-residence.
Something got triggered at that time. It was also the same year that I showed this quilt at the Antarctic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. And the quilt was one of my first textile works. I actually got into that show through proposing this quilt and it was quite exciting because I really wanted to work with a different material. And it was all repurposed fabrics. I just got really tired of the physical and of having too much material around me that I didn't understand.
I had already been stretching my own canvases and things, but I got really allergic to plastic and to the chemicals in my paints. I suddenly became more sensitive to using oil paints and the fumes. And I also just started to get fascinated with this idea that maybe there's something to be said for the connection between color and rarity. I feel like that idea has been almost lost in modern society.
Especially with paint, color and accessibility are completely interconnected. In old master paintings, before the chemical revolution of pigments in the 1800s, there was a blue pigment that came from Lapis lazuli, so a very, very expensive stone. And it had to get refined and refined before it could be used as a pigment.
Nowadays, every color is something that you pick from a color wheel, and there's no connection anymore between color and what it used to require. The same goes for pigments and dye, you know, the color purple originally came from snails. But they had to make the little snails get scared somehow and then they would squirt out their little snail defense stuff, which isn't even purple until it oxidizes.
On the other hand, you might see a flower that’s every color that you could ever want as a pigment, but it's ephemeral. And so I just got really interested in the question of what would happen to my practice if I started to think about the connection of color to a mineral or to ephemerality—essentially, what is the inherent quality of color? Since then, it just naturally unfolded that I started exploring pigments, and experimenting with different kinds of oils.
I was also repurposing old handspun linen to paint on because it's actually cheaper to buy antique linen than newly manufactured linen.
There are all these weird idiosyncrasies in our reality where it seems like the things that are maybe the most valuable — in the sense of being the most unique— can be the most undesired. That's always been interesting to me — to find those things that no one else wants. And, when I want them it means that I'm abundant because I can have as much as I want.
The last paintings that I did, which were all with mineral pigments, I just was so content doing these super thin layers, which didn't use that much paint and which barely left any marks on the canvas. But, by putting down 15 or 16 layers, I was able to actually create at a pace that felt really safe and warm. Since it's oil, things aren't drying that fast, so I was able to move paint around all day long.
I feel like there's something really beautiful and rare about having that space and time to not commit to a layer. If you're working with acrylics, especially like if you're spray painting something, you put that mark down and your gesture better be spot-on because it's going to dry right then and there.
But, with these mineral pigments and these oils that don't even show up until the 10th layer or so, it's like you can move the paint around all day and you can just keep feeling it out. Maybe you know that stroke was really just for you to exercise a bit and it shouldn't have been put on the canvas, or maybe that gesture shouldn’t have been recorded, etc.
That's the beautiful thing that making my own paints did for me— it slowed me down so I was able to realize that something else is happening here. Then, finally after an hour of moving things around, I can get it right and then I can say I'm done. There’s less bravado.
I went pretty far with my mineral explorations. A lot of the pigments that I love— like Malachite—as soon as you add the oil, it darkens and turns into mud, basically. So I was trying to figure out how I could add the pigment to canvas in a permanent archival way, without getting oily and plasticky.
Detail shot: Winston Chmielinski, Home, 2018, oil, dry pigment on linen, 170 x 140 cm. Image courtesy the artist.
I discovered that, through mixing a lot of different resins, and rice starch, I was able to get something that worked. I know that it's archival because Chinese scrolls look amazing, and some of them are 1000 years old—and they used rice and wheat. I wanted to adhere pigment on the canvas in a permanent way without it losing that chalky quality. I really want it to be like a dusting of color, but with a lot of saturation.
So, at the moment, I'm working on color fields. It was during COVID that all this kind of transpired. I was basically surrounded by too many people in my own living room, it was like all my paintings had something recognizable as figuratively influenced.
All I wanted was to wake up and feel like I was floating in fields of color. But I wanted them to be visceral. And so all of the paintings have a lot of 3d elements. So the surface catches the light in as many different ways as possible.
The final mixture has beeswax in it, there's gum arabic, there's some Copal resins, frankincense, etc. I think it’s romantic. It's just like a glory of stones and resins. And I was really overjoyed that I could make myself so happy with my own artwork and even surprise myself—it feels like this completion moment and I think that means a lot.
That all being said, I also made an agreement with myself to spend about a year and a half exploring the digital side of things. The reason being that I really love materials, and I think that—for me—my biggest dream with making material objects is that they look better in person than on Instagram. It’s almost a weird double life that I'm living. I'm collecting more materials than you can imagine with all the pigments and things, but I am spending most of my time in the digital sphere.
I’m working with a lot of other people to build a blockchain that’s a digital-physical bridge. My ultimate dream is to make things that I can give away for free. I want to separate any need to sell from the creation of my art, which is interesting because I also think there's a lot of motivation in having a show or having things to sell.
There's a lot that can invite people into your world when things are out there but this is a grand experiment for me to see what happens to my art when I'm completely free from those parameters for a couple of years. I know that to have that time as an opportunity is a very rare and beautiful thing—and I love rare and beautiful things.
Cover of the Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazine with artwork by Winston Chmielinski.
AA: Your work was on the cover of the Süddeutsche Zeitung not too long ago, which is basically the German equivalent of the New York Times Magazine. How did that come about?
WC: Oh my gosh. Okay. So, the person who chooses the artwork for the Süddeutsche Zeitung just happens to have been following my work for several years. He reached out to me about four years ago and said, “Hey, I love your art. I want to use something for the magazine.” But, at that time, nothing was a good fit. Two years later, he found something.
Of course, the article he chooses for my work is intense—about someone with 17 chihuahuas and who’s mixed up with the mafia somehow. So, I got an email from him while I was traveling in Bavaria, ironically, since it’s basically the regional source of this magazine. My apartment was sublet out to a family from Brazil that couldn't fly back home during lockdown. And I wasn’t going to kick them out because they would have nowhere to live. So I got an Airbnb for four months and I ended up in this small town in Bavaria with an herbalist and we would go out picking herbs together. And, it was during this time that I got this email from him.
He said, “Hey! We have this big story. Everything is top secret. I can't tell you anything about it except there’s 17 chihuahuas, and there's a man and a woman in the mafia, and I need you to illustrate five images in 10 days.”
Luckily, it has always been a dream of mine to go back into my work and rearrange things a bit. So this was like a total digital escapade, where I basically took paintings that I had never shown and I was able to bring out the things that I loved about them, move things around, and do some digital painting.
I also didn't have internet so it was just like this crazy weird experience and then 10 days later I submitted all those images and one made it onto the cover and that was super flattering because I think a lot of stories in one issue are bidding for the cover, but I guess mine was just strange enough that they chose it.
AA: What advice do you have for young artists?
WC: Reach out to other artists that you love because it's incredible how everyone that I reached out to had the bandwidth to respond.
I think there's a misconception that artists are getting emails all the time and it's not true. It's not true at all. When someone reaches out to me I'm really touched because it means that my art is doing what I wanted it to do.
I think it’s important to reach out to other artists. Forget about all the other things that you're “supposed to do” or the people you're “supposed to” reach out to, but reach out to other artists and let them know their work has influenced you.
I love it—like tears and tears of joy love it— when I get messages on Instagram like, “I found your art 10 years ago and I printed it out and now I'm like a full time artist!” I love these crazy beautiful words from strangers and I just think it's the most amazing thing ever.
It's also a gift that you can give so much to a young artist or an emerging artist—you have so much to give already, just from your own experience.
Artwork Archive has been a godsend. I’ve been using it for more than five years. It was the first attempt I made at organizing myself and I think it actually gave me a lot of confidence. Organization is not difficult and it saves lives!