Painter Winston Chmielinski: A Catch 23
Interview and portraits for East Village Boys, May 2012
Winston Chmielinski is a busy boy. Handsome, exotic, uninhibited and talented – it seems like he’s got all it takes for becoming the art world’s Next Big Thing. Add to it his impeccable style and impressive social skills, and it’s no wonder that this 23-year-old is getting so much play. We met a couple of years ago when I was invited to be a guest on Dr. Vaginal Davis’s talk show Speaking From the Diaphragm at PS 122. And Winston volunteered to be one of the Chatroulette kids, seducing the audience with his sexy moves. The show was a hoot, with the hostess and guests noticeably drunk, Genesis P-Orridge and Penny Arcade both flashing their tits, me reading my obscene poetry and Vag fellating on stage some random dude from the audience. Nudity seemed like the most natural thing – a fleeting Queer Utopia in action, so rare for post-9/11 New York. It’s that night that Winston caught my attention and I took my first portraits of him – the first of many. We became friends and, to my great surprise, I discovered in between our photo sessions that there is so much more under the pretty surface and those rosy cheeks…
Slava: The first time we met, you were one of the Chatroulette kids on Vaginal Davis’s show. You were dancing in your undies and then, in the grand finale, you were served as dessert – guests were invited to eat cake from your naked body. What are your recollections of that wild experience?
Winston: I hope you weren’t the one who stuck a finger in my mouth. I’m so lactose intolerant and my plastic wrapped body was covered in wet whipped cream, and some dude with a dollop of it on his salty finger just jammed it in. I had to fart immediately. I was all “smises” until that moment, and then I just closed my eyes, submitted to the licking, and clenched my insides.
Slava: Oh, I would never think of sticking things in your mouth! You seemed to have a good time though… I love the fact that you are so comfortable with your body and you have some cool moves too, which naturally makes you a perfect photographic subject. Tell me about your modeling achievements. Is it something you do for the vanity, money, exposure?
Winston: When I'm on stage I become a stomach with slits for eyes, so whether I'm clothed and seated or naked and gyrating I feel sick. This disgusting feeling is my base. So I figure I can get through whatever I've put myself out to do, and I actually feel like these staged-self-presentations are forcing me back into myself. Like, at the Barney's Spring video call-back I nearly fainted--it was day three of this self-imposed Master Cleanse which is like perma heat stroke and these rapid fire flimsy questions were coming at me and I was gut responding from deep dank pits of intestinal plaque (the mood: self-questioning), and I remember just kind of folding over and closing my eyes and letting loose a babble about dreams. When I thought I was a definite no-go, I actually felt euphoric, having just failed successfully in commanding the attention of people who really don't give a shit. As for the vanity that fuels the rest... It runs way deep. It's the Asian eye-bat, which is myth and fantasy and which doesn't really work for men anyway. Looks can get you really far here, but I started to see myself in the third person. So now I'm shooting for re-integration.
Slava: I’m fascinated by your background, since you’re the only Polish-Chinese person I’ve ever met. What qualities have you inherited from each side of your family?
Winston: Thanks for not lumping me in with all those Sino-Russians… Being a first generation mutt makes me a genetic anomaly, I mean there’s even the term “hybrid vigor” which describes exactly what happened when I went through two puberties, the first of which had me looking more Asian and the second shooting me way past the lump sum of my parents’ parts. Or we can fragment me and have fun with this, like maybe my genetic ingredients pooled and pocketed, and this oblong face distills a specifically Chinese prolongation of cultural erasure, but put a bag over my head and suddenly I’m a Polack with thick-calved ancestors from the Steppes.
Slava: Describe the differences between your parents/both sides of your family – especially in relation to your work, sexuality, lifestyle, etc... In general, how do they perceive what you do and who you are?
Winston: They’re very sensitive to the residue of it all. I feel like I have a lot to prove; my mother feels like I’ve fallen from grace. Both my parents would cut down new growth grandiosity in a second. I’m thankful for that. As for my dad, he’s really mellowed out and wants to come along for the ride. My mother hates rides! I remember we actually coerced my mother onto the Space Mountain ride in Disney World, ten years ago… She started screaming at the loading dock and didn’t stop till we had already dismounted—everyone else on it was pissed, my dad had his camcorder rolling, and my sister and I were giggling and totally un-phased: “Mom always screams…”
Slava: Tell me about your most vivid childhood memory.
Winston: I’ve actually just recently been thinking a lot about my childhood, looking for patterns of behavior that may have started there. There are all these memories of just being alone… I would wander off, totally wrapped up in something like finger chasing a salamander or finding a four-leaf clover. I was also a really quiet baby, I didn’t cry and I didn’t talk for a couple years. One time a Christmas tree fell on me and I was under there forever. I think I was into it. Like, immaculate shelter! The womb returns!
Slava: You have a lesbian sister who looks more butch than you. What was it like growing up gay for the two of you and who came out first?
Winston: My sister hates the term butch. We’re just queer kids and things got switched. I ended up in chat rooms and my sister pummeled a punching bag. It wasn’t an option to come out and yet she did… and I was a wuss and a klepto and waited until prom to say “No... I mean, yes!”
Slava: I’m curious to know more about your kleptomaniac past. I can totally relate to that – I used to compulsively steal stuff left and right – books, clothes, even pharmaceuticals… Once I was caught shoplifting a CD of Serge Gainsbourg from Virgin Megastore on Times Square, which was a major ordeal and embarrassment. Were you ever caught, and are you still occasionally stealing things?
Winston: I was never caught, not that I wasn’t careless but I was cherubic in the face. I only swiped things relating to computer games, so, money cards and expansion packs and the like. I was pulling all-nighters for this game Everquest, and my avatar was a blonde and built tree hugger who played music on a lute and charmed beasts into doing his bidding. I had a roster of online friends I’d play with every day, my surrogate social network. I was abnormally quiet all through my adolescence.
Slava: As a self-taught, I always wonder – what are the pluses and minuses of having an academic art education?
Winston: I don’t know art education. I mixed together whatever would stick. Then I started presenting faces, and found myself living a little bit vicariously through my paintings, which I think sallied those original impulses. Sometimes I still feel contextually void and cease all work to cerebrally substantiate what I’m doing… That’s no good.
Slava: You say that some of your paintings “painted themselves” and you “just had to clean up after them”. Describe in a few words your process and objectives.
Winston: The way that I approach any blank surface is haphazardly, whether it be a canvas, an empty word document, a plate of food.... I’m a compulsive maximalist with minimal intentions and painting allows for implausible extremes. I shy away from control, I’m more of a preservationist/sentimentalist. So, when some spectacular interaction takes place between forms and colors and textures, I designate those areas as the crutches of my composition and tidy up the surrounding debris.
Slava: You often incorporate found images in your work, but somehow most of your paintings end up looking like self-portraits. How much of your work is barrowed/fictional and how much of it is personal/biographic?
Winston: It’s hard to draw that line. Almost all of my work references borrowed imagery, but I choose to distill out original narrative elements and retain only what’s wholly interpretable and subjectively personal. So in a sense, it’s all self-portraiture, though I’m now trying to steer clear of physical reproductions. I guess the impact of looking at my own reflection over a lifetime—curiously and apprehensively, lovingly and hatefully—has been profound.
Slava: I was recently invited as a visiting artist to SVA and I was surprised to see that a lot of art kids nowadays use fashion magazines as the main inspiration for their work, which often ends up looking like a bad imitation of Elizabeth Peyton. What’s your relationship with fashion?
Winston: “One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art” – Oscar Wilde wasn’t writing for the masses. I could care less for the industry as well. For me, fashion is a performance and, privately, a fetish. I’ve been taking steps though to indulge in moderation. More Hanes t-shirts and tank tops and paint-stained pants.
Slava: It’s funny you mentioned Oscar Wilde – I’m actually reading The Picture of Dorian Gray in preparations for a show inspired by this book. In it, there are so many interesting observations about art and artists, including this one: “To reveal art and conceal the artist is the art’s aim.” Seems like an outdated idea, since these days the artist’s personality is as important and interesting – or, in some cases, even more so. In other words, it’s not what you do, it’s who you are. I love reading artists biographies and memoirs. Are there any artists of the past or present that you’d want to model yourself after?
Winston: Jean Cocteau. He signed his name with a star. My signature spells out “Eve.” So I’m a little bit off, and he says he was too, but Mr. Cocteau owned all his peculiarities without making a spectacle of himself. He retraced Jules Verne’s footsteps and then wrote about it in Round the World Again in 80 Days, and I was blown away by his writing—inviting, beautiful, versed, never preachy. Holier-than-thou mentality did not infect Cocteau. The man made it through some serious stuff, too, like impetigo (pussy skin blisters) while filming La Belle et la Bête, and had a bad case of the opium blues, which later inspired him to write Opium, a terrific one-on-one with addiction… Cocteau did just about everything, and to the utmost, and then died in a chapel consecrated by his own hand with the gayest looking things, in all senses of the word. I love that.
Slava: You’re one of few artists I know who reads AND writes. When did you start writing and what are your favorite books/literary influences?
Winston: So, I’ve been going through boxes at my parents’ house this past week and I came across a dozen journals from elementary through high school, totally inane with their first pages filled and the rest blank. I never follow through, because journaling in that sense was the least personal thing I ever put my hand to. But I was such a follower. Everyone else seemed stoked to regurgitate daily doings. I remember scribbling ferociously in pencil and tensing up because I couldn’t write fast enough and then smudging all over because I’m left handed and write with my arm and hand all curled up… But if you look at my homework assignments from the same period, there are doodles in the margins and melodramatic poems on the back and fake incantations next to my name. Totally weird, totally me. But anyway, back to writing… A guy in some nouveau-riche Beijing bar came up to me and asked to read my cards right then and there, and I said yes of course, so we cleared a little area and he took out his cards and did his thing and afterwards said to me, “You paint, and you write. Stick with the painting.” And it stuck. Writing has remained a private pursuit. Nabokov is always a favorite. I also really wish I had an Emily Dickenson-esque pen pal.
Slava: What I love about your work and style is the gender-bender aspect. We live in the Age of Aquarius and I find it very inspiring and exciting! It’s something that carries your work beyond the stigma of “gay art” and tiresome queer identity issues. Were you always as androgynous?
Winston: Androgyny is a full spectrum and I don’t really know where I fall. If I’m flipping through a fashion magazine, I’ll identify with and idealize a female face and a male body independent of one another. It’s a body issue buffet. I don’t fit in physically, never have, and still want to. I even applied Rogaine to my face once. Apparently that stuff circulates through the blood stream and you just get more hairy in other places. Which is a perfect model for how the outside trickles in, leaving me with a fragmented sense of self. I’m passionately working on reversing the process, or at least poles of emphasis… One-off-ness is my greatest asset.
Slava: Let’s talk about your impressive physic and flexibility. How do you stay in shape? And what do you eat/not eat?
Winston: I’m grateful for genetics. My dad is nearing sixty and he’s a vacuum for meats, fats, carbs, and alcohol, and he’s maybe only ten pounds heavier than when he was thirty. I tend to jitter a lot too when I’m stationary, like at the computer I’ll do back bends on a gym ball and sing and dance and bounce my leg and stretch my arms and neck—which, now to think of it, is probably why I’ve never liked working in public places. I try to stick to weight exercises that use only my body weight, and now I’m practicing hand stands so I can do upside down push-ups at my computer, too.
Slava: These days more and more artists use social media and networking as a way to promote and publicize their work. What used to be considered “shameless self-promotion,” something demeaning, has become the norm for a whole new generation of media savvy kids who use Internet as their main tool or weapon. What role does it play in your work?
Winston: I use twitter as a catch-all for mind splinters, that’s all. I’m so bad at giving back, or “joining the conversation”… My followers stay silent or I shut them up with eighty-character-long hash tags. I’m so sorry! I find that self-promotion through social networks is a game of I’ll click yours and you click mine, and because I’m rarely looking through my news feed I feel like it would be too presumptuous to post professional or personal achievements. Not to say I haven’t done so in the past, and I’m secretly hoping someone else will post it on my wall so that I can just count the Like’s.
Slava: What brings you most pleasure in life and art?
Winston: I’m trying to think of the right way to say this… There are moments when I forget myself completely, in the sense that everything is, for a split second, integrated. Weather imagery’s bubbling up. A perfect downpour. Feeling naked. A genuine, spontaneous smile, coming from me and going nowhere in particular, just outward. That’s nice. I’m averse to sappiness, the image is letting me down… Another great pleasure? Feeling that I’ve been honest with myself here. Saying what I want to say.