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James Wines

Stirring away from modernist seriousness, architect, artist and environmentalist James Wines has been creating controversial masterpieces for decades. His work is witty, thought-provoking and almost always a direct response to the surrounding landscape. Nature is important to him—almost sacred. Case in point: integrating an actual forest into the design of a building in Richmond, Virginia—and that’s just one of his extravagant ideas.

Wines may be best-known for his designs of BEST Products, a nationwide chain of catalog showroom retail stores (operating from 1957 to 1997), whose founders, out-of-the-box thinkers and prominent art collectors, were unafraid to let him experiment with designs that some found outrageous—from façades that look incomplete, abandoned or destroyed, to shopping centers appearing inside-out, with guts exposed revealing their inner workings, to buildings that are practically turned into a life-size sign with the brand name “BEST” plastered all around it. His roster includes the now-defunct Ghost Parking Lot in Connecticut, the grass-roofed Shake Shack in New York’s Madison Square Park, and two of Virgil Abloh’s Off-White showrooms, in South Korea and Japan. 

Wines, who has a National Design Award for Lifetime Achievement under his belt, among more than twenty-five art and design awards and global recognition, is the president of SITE (Sculpture in the Environment), a New York-based environmental art and architecture organization he co-founded in 1970, and a professor of architecture at Penn State University. He values conceptualism over formalism and strongly believes in hand-drawing as key to the creative process.

“Nature’s Revenge,” now on view at Rhona Hoffman gallery, is an homage to a wide range of his work. Think: drawings, designs and objects. Through his works on paper one gets to experience a peek into the BEST Parking Lot in Dallas, Texas (1976), the Serpentine Pavilion (2016) and the drawing behind the exhibition title, “Nature’s Revenge: NYC 2050, View from Lower East Side” (2022). Black, white and sepia tones meet watercolor; pen and ink wash meet sharp black marker lines. 

Ever-involved with environmental issues, his commentary on sustainable practices and energy-efficient building materials is obvious. A series of light bulbs features five sculptural objects based on that very motif. But not quite: one is painted black, one is taking the form of a vase, another resembles a candle. Rethinking its form, Wines disrupts its function urging the viewer to reconsider its meaning. Anything is possible. 

“Global warming and the future of the environment are all major issues today, and ‘Nature’s Revenge’ is a response to the over-built world,” he says. “Considering the complex definitions for the word ‘nature’—now increased to include social, political, psychological, functional and ecological associations—the drawings represent an effort to comment on various aspects of meaning.” Giving special consideration to the ecological structure has always been top of mind for Wines. So is the ever-increasing need for green space. Instead of destroying vegetation, abusing land and using energy in the name of architecture, Wines, whose practice doubles as cultural criticism, believes we could be more responsible.The exhibition aims to reconcile the two. 

With a background in sculpture that has inevitably informed his perspective, Wines considers architecture as something that needs to be continuously examined and challenged. He intentionally creates a fusion of the natural environment and public space—a place where the canonical and the familiar are overthrown by the fantastical and the sublime. It is in that place that one realizes that “Nature’s Revenge” provides more than a glimpse into architectural history—it offers an opportunity to try and make sense of our (and the planet’s) future.

James Wines’ “Nature’s Revenge” is on view at Rhona Hoffman, 1711 West Chicago, through February 11.

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