Tyrrell Winston wants you to look at your trash in a new light. Working primarily with discarded cigarette butts, deflated basketballs, and ruined nets, the Brooklyn-based artist is elevating the garbage of New York City into aesthetically-pleasing sculptures.
Collected while walking the streets of New York, Winston’s work is physically rooted in the city but his message is much more universal. Winston’s work conjures up a romantic nostalgia for these discarded objects — we get taken back to days spent on the court or imagine the story behind each discarded cigarette. It also forces the viewer to examine their relationship to objects and touches on ideas of regeneration and waste.
The art has a social aspect to it as well — the artist is literally cleaning the streets as he collects these items, and each broken basketball net he takes is replaced with a brand new one. “This work cannot exist without the immediate exchange of old and new,” Winston says. “It’s equal parts community service and art.”
Ahead of his solo show at La Cité gallery in Paris, we caught up with the artist to talk about garbage, misreadings of his work, and why he’s so attracted to working with cigarettes.
It’s evolved over time but the one component of my work that translates across all of the bodies of work is the embedded history. That history has nothing to do with me, it’s abstract.
When I find all these cigarettes sweeping in front of bars downtown, I have nothing to do with the person who smoked the cigarette. Or the moment that was behind the cigarette — if it was someone outside of a bar smoking because they needed to relax, were too drunk, or were going to go home with somebody.
There are all these different stories and narratives that are seemingly infinite, and I have nothing to do with them. But at the same time, I have everything to do with them because I’m now elevating this garbage in a way that it’s unavoidable, and you’re paying attention to it.
Yes and no. I think as forms they’re very beautiful. The cigarette pieces in particular —it’s easy to get lost in the line of the cigarette.
There’s no meaning that I expect people to get from the work. Some people are really focused on the stories and others are just like, “Wow, I didn’t think that cigarettes could look like this.” And then other people just think it’s vile, disgusting work. So there’s a wide spectrum.
The show’s title is Line, which references a lot of what I do. I’m walking lines, zig-zagging around the city. I’m sweeping cigarettes, I’m collecting basketball nets.
While the end result is created in the studio, so much of my work happens on the street, which is the most important aspect to me.
The show’s title is also about the lines that are drawn between these seemingly disparate mediums. Cigarettes and basketballs, they have a lot more in common than one would think just by looking at them for the first time.
Not to give too much away, but cigarettes and basketballs both involve air. Cigarettes take the air out of the room, and in Basketball air is a symbol of hope — you have to have air in the ball. There’s a lot of other parallels, but I like the viewer to dissect those and kind of come to their own conclusions based on what they experience.
I was getting frustrated because I was doing a lot of stuff with drug paraphernalia I’d find downtown and in my neighborhood. And I think that people were misinterpreting what I was saying. Cigarettes, at least for me, they’re one of the most socially accepted social ills. We tolerate cigarettes but they’re awful. They’re a lot worse than some drugs.
Some people thought I was glorifying drug use, but that wasn’t it at all.
It was more like, “Let’s talk about the prevalence of drugs and the glorification and also the demonization of them in US society.” I find that chasm extremely fascinating and also tragic. But then, I didn’t want to be known as the drug artist. I wanted to focus on things that didn’t necessarily have to be so dark.
With cigarettes, the conversation can be dark, but it’s also kind of light. And with the basketball nets, a lot of people might initially see broken nets and think they represent broken dreams, but these nets are worn out because people have played on them. There’s a rebirth with this work also, because all of the nets are immediately replaced with new, stronger nets.
There are two trains of thought. One, social media is vapid: it’s constantly me, me, me, with a fixation on likes. But at the same time, there’s also the thing that you can’t deny, that it’s a platform where you can literally have thousands, tens of thousands, of eyes on your work.
If you send out an email to a bunch of people that you don’t know with a link to your website, no one’s going to look at it. With an audience, you can get really good — although very hurtful — feedback.
Tyrell Winston’s “Lines” is on view at La Cité until March 15.
14 Cité Bergère