The East End is home to legions of landscape painters, typically offering images of vineyard fields, the roiling sea, Springs marshland, golf courses or sun-bleached dunes with tall grass and aged snow fencing — all created with differing levels of the impressionistic and the real. Greenport painter Charles Winheld is doing something quite different, and art lovers should be excited for it.
Opening at Greenport Harbor Brewing Company in Greenport this Saturday, May 13, Winheld’s new exhibition, Backwaters, will feature more than 25 of his compelling, slightly abstracted paintings depicting scenes that rarely capture the imaginations of other local artists. That’s what makes them so fascinating.
Instead of beaches, dunes and fields, Winheld focuses on industrial parks, vacant lots full of rusty oil drums and sheet metal, demolished cars, disused overpasses, chain link fence, abandoned buildings and dry-docked boats. These are the spots hidden behind the manicured businesses on Main Street, the places viewed from the window of a westbound LIRR train as urban sprawl and rural beauty collide. This is a world that typically intrigues or repels, but rarely leaves folks undecided about how they feel.
A Conversation with Charles Winheld
“The back of Alice’s Fish Market provided a lot of imagery, and I often combine two different photographs, sometimes from entirely different areas, hundreds of miles apart, to create a unitary image,” Winheld explains, describing one of the Greenport locations that inspired his work, a waterfront lot with traps stacked high and a decaying hulk of a fishing boat, “Predator,” docked along dense wood pilons.
Combining photographic references, Winheld’s paintings seem to romanticize the outskirts and dirty underbelly of a place, real or imagined, but the artist says his interests are more formal. The locations excite him for “basically just the sheer geometrical, spatial interest,” he says, though he still keeps things rooted in the original source images.
“I do have a sense of place, and even in my most abstract paintings, I feel a need to preserve this — what, for lack of a better term, I would call a sense of location or place. Sometimes it’s frustrating. I don’t know whether to paint more realistically,” he explains. “And some of the paintings would develop quite unexpectedly.”
Winheld says he’s always on the hunt for locations and keeps his iPhone on hand to snap images. He also sketches what he sees, and his old printed photos and slides continue to inform the work. “I still use photographs that I took 20, 30 years ago,” he says.
Along with his consistent subject matter, Winheld’s paintings have a rather muted color palette, they are all created on heavy-duty archival paper, and he mixes his own paints using mostly antiquated methods. Modern oils and acrylics just don’t fit his needs.
“In the past I’ve been mixing items such as wheat paste made from ordinary flour or cherry and gums from fruit trees. You can emulsify them with either oil or resins … technically it’s a tempera,” he says, clearly in his element when discussing the finer points of archaic pigment recipes.
“I like aqueous mediums. I had problems with acrylic. It dries totally imperviously,” Winheld continues, adding later, “I finally decided to use casein, which historically goes back to antiquity in one form or another. It dries almost as imperviously as acrylics after a year or two.”
Casein is a milk protein that works wonderfully as the base for a water-soluble paint, according to Winheld, who points out that it was originally made from cottage cheese in ancient times, and it was a main ingredient in household adhesives sold in hardware stores during the 1940s and ’50s.
“I like the matte, non-reflective quality of the aqueous medium,” he says.
Backwaters was a long time coming for Winheld and Greenport Harbor. Already associated with South Street Gallery in Greenport, he heard about the brewery showing work and decided to see if they’d have a place for him. “I spoke with (GHBC co-owner Ann Vandenburgh) and she was very interested in having a show at some point,” he recalls. “And just when we were getting things going, the COVID epidemic started breaking, so we were sort of on hold for about two-and-a-half years.”
The two kept in touch throughout the pandemic, and now the show is finally happening, and it’s worth the wait. Join Winheld and drink some great local beer at the opening this Saturday, May 13 from 6–8 p.m. at Greenport Harbor Brewing Company’s Greenport location, 234 Carpenter Street.
The Backwaters exhibition will be on view through July 31.
Visit greenportharborbrewing.com for more info, including hours and what beers are pouring.
To learn more about Charles Winheld, visit charleswinheldart.com.