Timely exhibition takes look back

Ben 1993 by Adrienne Martyn. Photo: Adrienne Martyn
Ben 1993 by Adrienne Martyn. Photo: Adrienne Martyn
With a major retrospective of the late artist Marilynn Webb’s works being held at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, nearby Olga Gallery has chosen to show a selection of her late son Ben’s works, finds Rebecca Fox.

Artist Ben Webb rises from the water of St Bathan’s Blue Lake holding his face and gazes back at the camera.

The image captured by Adrienne Martyn on a Pentax 35mm in 1993 was in colour, but she later converted it to black and white.

"Darkening the foreground added drama to the image which reflected his theatrical personality," Martyn says of the image which features in an exhibition of the late artist’s work at Dunedin’s Olga Gallery.

She remembers Webb in his young days as flamboyant, dark, creative, sophisticated and fun.

Webb’s "larger than life" personality seem to hit the headlines a lot. An Otago Daily Times headline from 2009 calls him the "Prince of dark arts" while he called himself "the most notorious artist in New Zealand" in the same article.

Sculptor Stuart Griffiths, who knew him from a child, says Webb (1976-2014) was described by many as a challenging artist.

"He set out to be one basically, in a very physical way, in a lot of ways, not just conceptually."

However, he believes in Webb’s case it was really important to remove the person from the art work.

"In a lot of ways the bad boy was the bad boy, and the art work was the art work, they were two different things. To say one is an absolute of the other is contradictory to what he said about his work. He said he was totally removed as far as his work being autobiographical."

Ben Webb’s Untitled, pigment print and opalescence, 2011. Photo: supplied
Ben Webb’s Untitled, pigment print and opalescence, 2011. Photo: supplied
Webb, the son of printmaker and painter Marilynn Webb (NZOM) and Maurice James Knuckey, who have both died in recent times, grew up surrounded by creatives such as Ralph Hotere (who was his godfather), Jeffrey Harris, Colin McCahon, Andrew Drummond, Patric Carey, Patricia and Kobi Bosshard and Rodney Kennedy.

Webb’s father and mother could be described as very strong personalities, Griffiths says.

"A lot of ways a young fella could have been crushed by that, but to give him credit he grew from that experience."

He was home-schooled from 12. At 14, he had his first studio, in Lower Stuart St, and by March 1992, when he was just 17, Webb was nominated by Metro magazine as New Zealand's most promising up-and-coming artist.

His career took a giant step forward in 1996 when he was 19, following his "Open Hang" exhibition at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery.

"That sort of acclamation at such a young age can have a detrimental effect, but as he started at such a very young age he was probably well on his way, well tuned into what he thought was his practice."

The same year he was the youngest of the New Zealand artists chosen to exhibit in the Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in Brisbane and in 2001 won a Goethe Institute Fellowship.

He moved to Germany in 1998 and made Berlin his home, although came home regularly to spend time in Dunedin and Aramoana.

Martyn, who met Webb when he was 16, describes his early work as "raw, original, experimental, abstract, confident and beautiful".

For Webb, his comments show his works represented the abject and were created from innocuous images he found anywhere from flea markets to archives.

"There was this personal removal of emotion from the work allowing the process he liked working with take over and become a pure aesthetic experience," Griffiths says.

Ben Webb’s Study 12 12 12, pigment print and opalescence, 2013. Photo: supplied
Ben Webb’s Study 12 12 12, pigment print and opalescence, 2013. Photo: supplied
For Griffiths this seemed to be a very traditional approach for one who claimed to be anything but.

"You could possibly put that down to being a self-taught artist. That is what he grabbed and saw as important."

Webb, despite his short life, did achieve a sense of identity.

"He would have been very conscious of the importance of that to becoming famous. He was a classic, he enjoyed the notoriety of saying that too."

He put work out there that challenged the system, asked questions about it, and he would have been aware of that."

Webb’s work, which Griffiths describes as post-modernist, is also quite recognisable.

"That is quite a big thing to achieve as a young man. It’s quite intriguing looking at his work."

Unfortunately Webb’s addictions jaded him considerably and took away his potential, he says.

"The support was always there for him from his family, it was genuine. It was heartwrenching." 

Griffiths never dealt with Webb in his low moments, instead finding him engaging and questioning about art and artistic practice whenever they met.

"He was very insightful, he had something to say and I really enjoyed that about him. He loved art and loved talking about art. That is quite hard to find. I liked him a lot and he was a very intelligent young man and talented, too."

Ben Webb’s Study 14 03 13, pigment print, ink and acrylic, 2013. Photo: supplied
Ben Webb’s Study 14 03 13, pigment print, ink and acrylic, 2013. Photo: supplied
Griffiths wonders what Webb’s work could have developed into if he lived. Or, if he would have, like "many rock ’n’ roll guys who burn brightly and then fade", not make greater work when he got older.

"You wonder what his mature work would have been like. I have a feeling he would have been like that. That’s a hard criticism. It’s just conjecture."

Despite this, Griffiths believes Webb should be recognised for his work with a retrospective.

For Olga’s owner Justin Spiers, the timing of the exhibition at a similar time to a retrospective of Webb’s mother’s work at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery is a "fortunate coincidence".

He had been planning an exhibition since Martyn’s 2022 exhibition of photographs of Marilyn Webb’s Dunedin home which included one where a portrait of Webb was on display.

"It was very moving. After our tribute exhibition ["and feather falling"]  to Marilynn last year we decided to also have an exhibition dedicated to the work of Ben Webb."

To connect with the DPAG exhibition, the first work of Webb’s that visitors will encounter at Olga is one based on a photograph of Marilynn.

"It seems like a fitting segue between the two exhibitions."

The exhibition will feature paintings, drawings and photographs of Webb’s as well as a collaboration  with Dunedin fashion label NomD from private collections. Also on show will be Martyn’s portrait, a poem written by friend Scott Flanagan and supporting text by Griffiths.


Ben Webb, Olga Gallery, December 7-January 20.