Ben Webb exhibits at Jonathan Smart Gallery until Saturday, March 8th. In one gallery, photographic source material is re-printed onto etching paper, then hand-touched; in the other, similar material is transposed free-hand in charcoal and black manganese oxide to create portraits of drama and despair.
Feb 20 - March 08, 2007
In a stirring article on Ben Webb's work ("Night Has A Thousand Eyes", Art New Zealand 123, Winter 2007, pp 86-89), David Eggleton reviews this young artist's oeuvre. He describes its "creepiness", generated in part by Webb's subjects - the dreamers, fraudsters and kindred spirits caught in cinema stills, forensic pages and the blurry politics of Eastern European newsprint photographs. Webb's is an eye for "the society of spectacle" treated as flesh, then flash-frozen.
But what precisely does Ben Webb draw out of his photographic borrowings, his appropriations, to make them his - and to transform them into art? Is it a quality of otherness, or the feeling of the outsider that he seeks? Or is it an ability within the darkness of temperament, or within simply the everyday or the mundane, to bear witness to vulnerability or an intimacy hitherto neglected or ignored?
For Webb certainly works with visceral intent - his visual range registered through a melancholy chiaroscuro of blacks and whites. Or as Eggleton puts it: "Darkness in a Webb image is like the bars of a cage, trapping something feral yet knowing." Yet Webb's dark painterly layers allow us distance from his subjects - a distance which also obscures their context - and which allows them to hover between menace and meaning.
After 12 years, Webb is increasingly assured. As Eggleton says, he "teases out - or grooms - his distressed surfaces, turning cracks and splits and washes of solvent into avatars of emotion…(And) his labour-intensive method - scanning, cropping, gridding, layers of underpainting, layers of overpainting, glaze after glaze, use of airbrush, incremental dusting and powdering…" lends the work subtlety and "an undeniable power".
The new editioned works, sanded and touched with metallic inks, are cast in an aesthetic close to grey. Cool, elegant and refined, these form the basis of Ben Webb's presence in a major summer show in Berlin this July, curated by Lena Braun. For an artist who divides his time between Dunedin and Berlin, this opportunity at Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien is perhaps, a sign of things to come.