Webb's dispassionate treatment unusual

Artist Ben Webb in his Stuart Street studio. Photo by Linda Robertson.
Artist Ben Webb in his Stuart Street studio. Photo by Linda Robertson.
Ben Webb (b.1977) recently had a show at the De Novo Gallery. His work is unusual in the New Zealand context and is a handy vehicle for discussing an elusive quality that distinguishes some aesthetic imagery.

Mr Webb is a New Zealander by birth and usually described as self-taught though, significantly, he grew up in an art-steeped environment. (His mother is the printmaker and pastellist Marilynn Webb [b.1937].)

At a very early age, Ben Webb debuted on the national and international art scenes, appearing at the Second Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in Brisbane in 1996, for example, where he got some positive critical attention.

He continued to be regarded, in some quarters at least, as an exciting new presence, which in turn produced some cynicism.

In 2001, a Los Angeles-based writer, Bruce Jenner, said Webb had been described as the up-and-coming local version of Julian Schnabel. With pecs.

Mr Webb is indeed personally well-favoured but of course that is irrelevant to the merit of his art.

For the past 10 years, he has spent a lot of time in Berlin. He was back in Dunedin this time to oversee the manufacture of some of his images locally for an exhibition at the Bethanien, Kunstraum Kreuzberg, in Germany.

Webb told the Otago Daily Times (21.2.08) ‘‘I feel socially and artistically based there.'' When you look at his art, that makes a lot of sense.

At a very early stage, he painted in the manner we call ‘‘expressionist'', using brushwork, coloration and other devices to imbue his canvases with feeling.

The trick is as old as art itself but its exemplary use was in early 20th-century Germany where it was impassioned, engaged and often highly politically and socially critical.

But even Webb's earliest works were removed from that, the screams of their victims, so to speak, being muted, in fact transmuted, into something more contemplative.

The core of Webb's art is appropriated imagery, often photographs, searched for, extracted and then worked over and transformed, so that his painting on canvas or paper is an autonomous object of his own creation.

Some of the images are still rather painful, or shocking, but his overlays give us some distance from the suffering and obscure its causes and context. The result is both powerful and unusual, but again has a German echo.

After expressionism there was post-expressionism, a development represented in Germany by the neue sachlichkeit artists, the term being translated as ‘‘new objectivity'' or ‘‘new dispassion''.

They sought exactly the kind of disengagement and distancing from the subject we see in Ben Webb's work. It seems also to suit the mood of modern Germany but is unusual here, especially when linked to any kind of figuration.

We have abstract expressionists - notably Colin McCahon (1919-87) and Ralph Hotere (b.1931) - whose work is not figurative but is emotional and frequently critical.

We have new expressionists such as Jeffrey Harris (b.1949), whose work is figurative and latterly less critical but still pretty highly charged. Few of our figurative painters can resist making some political or moral point.

Webb's dispassionate treatment of highly charged material is thus exceptional in our context.

An artist with a parallel approach is the photographer Christine Webster (b.1958).

A little while ago, I said I thought she'd achieved a breakthrough with her suite ‘‘Le Dossier'', exhibited in 2006.

Those works feature sex in some of its more lurid manifestations. Some regard her imagery as thinly disguised pornography but I think they miss its point.

True pornography is designed to titillate. Ms Webster's images may have that effect but it isn't their primary purpose.

Nor is it to critique the sex and other industries' exploitative use of gesture and symbol: it is to observe it, at a distance, dispassionately, but sympathetically.

Mr Webb's use of forensic imagery might be misconstrued by its parallel in shock/horror campaigns to discourage us from driving too fast, or to adduce our outrage at the war in ‘‘somewherestan''.

There are images made for those purposes that may also happen to be art. But that is not the nature of Webb's productions.

He has said his work is about aesthetics, by which I think he means he wants to subsume the horror in poetry. In the crippled pose and anguished expression of the victim, there is a kind of beauty.

To observe it is not to deny the cruelty of suffering but to reveal its essential humanity. To observe it, we must become objective.

To see it is to be reminded of the pathos of our condition. Few perform this difficult transaction so deftly as Mr Webb.

- On Friday, the Otago Daily Times editorial listed some of Dunedin's distinguished artists, underscoring its role as a creative place. I would respectfully add McCahon's name as one indubitably formed here.

- Peter Entwisle is a Dunedin curator, historian and writer.

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