Study Guide

Hang-ups

by Jonathan Winters

Hang-ups Essay - Critical Essays

Hang-ups

Near this collection’s end, when introducing “City Dump,” Winters writes: “In paintings, I think it’s important to read into them whatever you want to read into them. Make up your own interpretation, your own reaction, whatever meaning suits you best.” Nevertheless, on the page facing each painting Winters informs the viewer what this or that is a “symbol” of (clothes hangers symbolize hang-ups, for example), what he was thinking of before or during composition, from which of his beliefs a given painting emerged, or when (twice) he does not know what a painting means. While his tone is generally amiable and humorous, he occasionally becomes didactic: Introducing “Urban Renewal,” Winters writes, “Even though urban renewal was a gallant idea, it still hasn’t worked for the poor.” Elsewhere, regarding “Fire on the Reservation,” he says, “We’ve stripped the Indian of so many things, . . . taken their land, stolen their heritage” (sic).

Composed with acrylics, these intensely colorful paintings represent Winters’ admitted attempts to “combine Surrealism with the colors and feelings of American Indian art.” Most of his images are of violence, decay, and death. He likes to paint birds, but they--like his other “living” creatures--appear as lifeless, cardboard cutouts. His human figures are usually dismembered or, as if by acid, partially disintegrated; his leafless trees are charred black, spiked. Indeed, there are pointed objects galore in his paintings, many of them stuck into people. Also prevalent are images of rats and frogs.

Winters unconvincingly insists that his paintings express hope; what they do clearly express is angry grief over his lost religious faith and America’s destructive betrayal of its simple, primitive, and wild elements.