Artist's Works Reflect her Views of a Society


December 13, 1992|By GINA CARUSO

None of Peggy J. Winters' paintings are displayed in her suburban living room. There's only an unremarkable oil painting of a landscape and it is not her own. The watercolorist's paintings are stored elsewhere in the event that neighbors happen by -- she doesn't want to take a chance on offending her guests.

"I'd like to paint a more positive picture of America," Ms. Winters says, "but how many barns, boats and flowers do we need?"

Her current work -- she focused in the past on luscious landscapes and flowers -- is a series of male nudes shrouded in the American flag. In "Moment of Despair," for example, the nude covers his face with one hand, and with the other just barely grips the edge of the flag, which has dropped to the floor. "He has been stripped of his dignity," she says, pointing to another painting's reclining nude, whose face is obscured by the flag.

"I never had any trouble selling the flower paintings," sighs Ms. Winters. "But this is not what art is all about. These paintings express my feelings of outrage about the injustice that is rampant in this country. However, I hope to stir more than an emotional reaction from the viewer. I hope to force people to face the serious problems that exist in America. Sometimes you have to shock or offend people to get your point across."

JTC Visitors to the Mitchell Baker Galerie in Baltimore do react to her work.

Some respond to her choice to paint male figures. With skin painted in cool opalescent tones, they are eerily lifelike in their classical poses, and seem to suggest, when our backs are turned, that they will change position.

A man who attended a show of her work this year told her to either put pants on him or make him a woman," she says. Some viewers assume that she is making a statement about acquired immune deficiency syndrome, she says. Some also see the male nudes and presume that the painter is male.

"Society's point of view is overwhelmed by the male point of view," says Jose Villarrubia, a professor at Towson State University who taught Ms. Winters to paint nudes and to explore her views of society through her art. His own art boldly examines issues of sexism and homophobia. "What in practice is considered homoerotic art is art that is only erotic to gay men, so any form of male nude -- even if it's not erotic, is labeled homoerotic whether it's by a man or a woman."

Ms. Winters says, "If I were to just paint the nudes without the political message, I wouldn't be getting my point across. If this were just purely erotic art, it wouldn't have the same implication."

"I do love and respect the flag and what it is supposed to stand for in this country," she says. "But I do feel that it does not stand for all the people it represents . . . the old, homeless, destitute, disabled. . . . It is not just the government that has let us down, we have let ourselves down by our intolerance, bigotry and narrow-minded views."

She credits her parents with encouraging her to paint and draw when she was a child -- juvenile rheumatoid arthritis hampered her mobility and disfigured her hands, preventing her from joining in sports with her peers. "Both of my legs were in casts when I was 5 years old. But my parents expected me to be very independent and determined. One day I came home and cried that another child had picked on me. My mother just said, 'Fight your own battles.' "

She still does. She produces work of enormous grace and control as well as political resonance. In one of her most powerful works, three flags are burning in a blaze of fluorescent oranges and reds. So vivid are the colors, the canvas seems consumed in flames. In fact, the pigments that Ms. Winters uses are so bold and brilliant that, at first glance, it is difficult to distinguish them from oils.

"As I became more competent with watercolors, I realized I wanted to go beyond the traditional watercolors of flowers, landscapes, etc.," Ms. Winters says. "Jose told me that I could paint flowers with my eyes closed. If I hadn't met him, I'd still be painting them."

One of Ms. Winters' paintings, "The Evils Men Do," can be seen in the Maryland '92 show at the Howard County Center for the Arts through Dec. 18. Her other works are scheduled to be on display this week at the Mitchell Baker Galerie in Baltimore.

GINA CARUSO is the coordinator of public programs at the Walters Art Gallery.

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