The camera has always been integral to Gerd Winner’s work. Prowling the streets with a Polaroid in hand, he looks to traffic signs, road markings, blocks of flats and articulated lorries in search of hidden instances of meaning among the criss-crossing lines of urban silhouettes.
A particular configuration might jump out – zigzag shadows under a New York fire escape, or plaster peeling around an emergency exit – and is snapped by the artist, the instant photograph stashed away for subsequent experimentation. Printed large, each snapshot becomes a resonant composition, its shapes and symbols decontextualised from their setting and lent a peculiar significance all their own.
Winner is just one of a number of contemporaries for whom innovations in the realm of screenprinting in the 1950s and ‘60s opened up a new world of printmaking possibilities. Through the use of stencils, artists could reproduce multiple images derived from diverse sources, side by side, on a monotextural plane.
For proponents of the medium, from Rauschenberg in the US to Paolozzi, Kitaj, and Hamilton in the UK, the screenprint was revolutionary: it allowed disparate pop culture fragments, be they torn comic strip panels, pin-up postcards, or pulp fiction book covers, to coexist within a flat, collaged image, their collocation prompting discussion on the value of the original material.
For Winner, it was not paper ephemera that held his interest but the very fabric of the city itself: crumbling edifices that become abstracted faces, their smile the patinated grill of a warehouse shutter, or the steel containers of parked lorries bedecked with lurid warning stripes.
Crucially, each photographic reproduction could be broken down by shape, surface, texture, or tone into separate layers of screenprint stencils. Specific elements could then be isolated and exaggerated through enhanced colour or overlay: in one series of prints, juxtaposed lines at a junction are framed as if a giant crucifixion underfoot, an intersection stigmata in thermoplastic paint set against a backdrop of tar-black bitumen.
Many of Winner’s most popular works, from the brooding Berlin suite to views of the London docklands, were editioned with the help of master printer Chris Prater of the now legendary Kelpra Studios.
A pioneer of screenprinting’s stencilling processes, Prater’s immense technical skills enabled Winner to achieve the throbbing depth of colour in his ‘Lorry’ prints, or the astonishing hyper-realist finish of his architectural suites, matching the disintegrating surfaces of apartment block walls brick for brick.
Through the frame of a camera viewfinder, Winner’s seemingly simple photographic arrangements point to a world of oblique words, signs, and symbols embedded within our everyday environment, of shapes and abstractions quietly communicating through the medium of brick wall or weathered steel. Relocated to the page via film and stencil and laid out in vivid layers of ink, their imaginative power is plain to see.