"Chuck Webster" by Carol Diehl, Art in America, June/July 2011
Chuck Webster's title for his third solo exhibition at Zieher Smith, "My Small Adventures," suits the show perfectly. These oil paintings on wood panel are of modest size (many under 20 inches square) and seem to reflect private explorations of both the external world and the psyche.
At first glance, the quirky, cartoonlike quality of Webster's semiabstractions may seem more trendy than profound. With a little scrutiny, however, this impression is mitigated by the ambiguity of the subject matterwhich, like all good abstraction, seems to be filled with meaning while actually signifying no specific thing. Points of reference are also ambiguous: often biomorphic, other times jagged, these emblematic symbols could just as easily be co-opted from early tribal paintings as could represent signals channeled from a simpler, postapocalyptic future. Mine (all works 2011) is a series of looping arched red lines on a whitish ground that might be a hill, a burial mound, the entrance to a cavern or cathedral, a waveor nothing more than a bunch of Op-like stripes run amok. In Float, intertwined banana-colored arches seem to be levitating over the earth. The subject of Ship of Fools hovers in midair, resembling a spiky crown as much as a boat.
Webster makes no attempt at compositional tension. Elements are not placed with regard to formal concerns, but put smack in the middle. In some works, there is nothing but open space; in others there is an implied landscapelike horizon. Yet despite this purposeful lack of complexity and Webster's flat, rather deadpan rendering of simple images, the paintings seem to quiver with an inner agitation. The more one looks at them, the more discomfited they appear; perhaps, through his use of repetition, Webster sets up an expectation of regularity that's continually thwarted by slight deviations. For Rampart, he has used red paint to draw a pattern of small arches (think fish scales), each of which contains within it a flat black dot. Because none of the dots are quite the same size, they begin to take on personality, each vying for attention, like a choir of beseeching souls. Held is positively anguished: two blobby anthropomorphic headlike forms merged together by what appear to be two sets of five grasping fingers, weirdly all the same length and desperately intertwined.
The artist slows the viewer down by providing rich, painterly surfaces that reward the sustained contemplation his work requires. Webster's backgrounds may look washy from a distance, but up close one sees layers of paint that have been built up and then sanded, scraped and buffed into a waxy, satiny sheen. The sense of materiality adds subtle complexity without being overwhelming, and the colors Webster chooses are bright and clear.
These paintings are as buoyant as they are disconcerting. While they each stand on their own, experiencing them collectively is like being bombarded with coded messages from some surreal netherworld where optimism and pessimism are constantly battling for control, and there is no resolution in sight.
"Chuck Webster" by Craig Olson, The Brooklyn Rail, October 2007
Chuck Websters most recent thicket of images triggers a response from somewhere between the senses, a place where the eyes ear is activated through optically tympanic vibrations. Its a visual sound that can be likened to prisms of light blown into clay resonators or sung through spiders-egg membranes, cultivating two kinds of acuity one deep and raspy, the other high, round and liquid. They are two different harmonic bearings traveling in tandem yet integrally connected and so remaining in organic unity.
Webster was invited to create a series of works based on Old Master paintings, sculpture and architectural adornments, ranging from Botticelli to Goya, in the collection of the Salander-OReilly Galleries. The ten paintings Webster produced were displayed on the third floor, away from the galleries collection, but there was a booklet available showing the Old Master works that inspired each of Websters paintings. This guide served as a mute docent, at times citing the exact detail of a particular masterwork in relation to Websters painting, at others simply supplying a visual comparison. This may seem like an off-putting experience. It implies a closure to the open trajectories of meaning Websters pictures usually occupy, reducing them to a 1:1 ratio of association. Surprisingly, a very different effect was achieved.
Presenting abstraction in such a structured environment serves as a study of what is possible in the larger scheme of the medium, an imaginary magnifying glass of sorts. This physical and mental distance between the old artworks and the new allows a breadth of mental space that opens the memory to the visual echoes of what weve witnessed. The specificity of this dialogue, between object and experience, channels the present through the past into a kind of trance an automatic visual ululation. Once inside this state it becomes less and less viable to separate details from the whole. It is not a fracturing but a telescoping of surface image to internal image and then outward to the overall structuring image.
Websters Galleon (2007) for example, is related to Francesco Pachecos seventeenth-century Ecce Homo. Pachecos work depicts Christ bound and crowned with thorns before Pontius Pilate, who lingers over his left shoulder while a mute soldier in a bulging twist of a metallic helmet pulls away Christs garments. The entire work has a rolling, liquid quality, from the tumbling arrangement of figures to the almost comically bulbous muscles of Christ and the lofty radiance surrounding his crown of thorns. Websters translation of this scene manifests itself into a bundle of swollen red and white protuberances collared at their base by a swooping band of interlocking spheres and diagonal lines. This mass hovers in an undulating blue ground that has been rubbed and polished to a waxy sheen. An image of glottal articulation translated through silent action, low and thick. Its a manipulated projection of formal relationships, a deliberate re-imaging of a scene whose status has diminished through the centuries from the ubiquitous to the arcane. Meaning assumes a mercurial sheen. Its forms will shift with each application of cultural, social, or philosophical pressure, and Websters transmutation is a sign of the polar extremes across which it now has the ability to spread.
It spreads to even more particular places in Websters To Forrest Bess (2007), a small whitish ground holding a yellowed, symmetrical cruciform shape whose appendages swell into eight bulging knobs. The further-most horizontal ones glow a dull fawn-orange. The appearance of the entire shape seems to lie precariously between ovaries and testicles. The motif stems from an ornamental detail on the frame of a painting by Orazio Gentileschi titled Christ at the Column. Its a dense and thick decorative frame, and the detail in question sits at the bottom center. The painting itself is of a languid, erotic Christ whose translucent skin reveals the intertwined bluish veins coursing through his body. Ancient memories of the hermaphrodite as the most exalted human form seep in from behind the eyelids.
To view one half of these pairings (Websters or Old Masters) is to conjure the other. Webster uses this to great effect by creating mental palimpsests within the confines of his very specific project, functioning as a superimposed simultaneity of recognition. There are no Rosetta stones to be found here; any attempt to search for them is futile because there are no answers to be had. There is, however, a place to experience the sounds, the colors, the pitches, a place where they move together all at once in constant vibration.
Whatever else Websters devotional pictures may be, they are undoubtedly pictures of love. A love wrought from meditation that expands outward from the individual to an intuitive vastness, reaching that place within the caverns between our highly specialized senses. It brings to mind new approaches to understanding perception that seeing is not a purely visual experience, but one in which the mind and body react simultaneously with both learned and instinctual responses. Its where seeing isnt really believing, but where it becomes a function of a more essential, unseen harmony.
"Chuck Webster" The Brooklyn Rail - December 2008
"Chuck Webster" by Shane McAdams
Since the 1960s, certain portions of the conceptual art world have been on a mission to emancipate arts intellectual essence from its corporeal burdento make art into pure idea. Lucy Lippard gave her account of this purging in her book, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972. No one really doubts that materiality in art will endure because human beings, no matter the level of intellectual development or technological reinforcement, are at heart smarter monkeys who like to use their senses to navigate the world. This tends to be forgotten though when the art market shakes up and sends the pendulum swinging toward the immaterial. I was reminded of this recently at Chuck Websters exhibition, O My Soul at ZieherSmith, where, with my somnolent material desires in tow, I think I saw that pendulum switching directions.
Webster has made a reputation for painting and drawing eccentric, often biomorphic abstractions on paper or panel with an endearing informality. Remembering his last show of works on paper at ZieherSmith, this new suite of paintings struck me as being particularly substantial and solid. The subject matter looked familiar: motifs that could have been gleaned from Navajo rugs, Anatolian Bronze necklaces, the back of a leaf or a bisected gourd. However, this time, the quirky forms took a back seat to process and material and, more essentially, to the time and matter implicit in Websters painting.
The Toughest Riddle, a spiny, burnt-orange form quivering in the middle of a scarlet field, looks like the product of a prolonged engagement with the paintings surface. Despite its far-reaching graphic clarity, a close examination of it reveals significant layering and reworking with traces of previous compositions peeking through its poker-faced countenance. What first seems a resolved composition becomes a palimpsest of erasures, abrasions, paint, and sizing which only barely lost the battle for survival to the fitter final image. Similarly, Figaro Figaro, a small painting of either clustered gastropods or abstracted tongue-shapes, quickly whisks the viewer from exterior to interior. Hints of green bleed from its pale red and salmon-hued seams. The closer one gets to its surface the more jewel-like and sophisticated it becomes. The stylized tongues come to read less like the preordained inheritors of the present than as the result of a contingent and fortunate evolution. Like tiny, unpolished versions of the sedimentary shelves of marble created from eons of accumulating seashells over which their lucky descendents thrive, Websters paintings seem simultaneously light-reflecting and light-absorbing, giving off a dim satiny glow.
Despite their discrete objecthood, the relative lack of compositional variation in Websters work leads one to accept each painting as part of an uninterrupted sequence. For example, Gannet, an OKeeffian-looking ribcage-shape set against a pale, worked-in background, functions on the same premise as the other paintings in the exhibitiona centered graphic floating in a monochromatic field. This one-off repetition makes the paintings seem more personal and ephemeral, but runs somewhat counter to the notion of them as time-worn jewels. But whos keeping score? As Barnett Newman said, Aesthetics is for the artist as ornithology is for the birds. I dont think Webster considers himself a maker of objects any more than time is a maker of fossils, so let the viewers and the paleontologists (respectively) sort out the details after the fact.
I cant help but see my somatic response to Websters work as an indicator of a more general need to revisit some artistic fundamentals. I think as the American art world, and America in general, sobers up from a period of financial decadence, it will become more sensitive to basic needs and desires: food and shelter in life; form and tactility in art. I also think, and hope, that we will see more work that supports these qualities in the way Websters does, either indirectly or directly. And, from an informal survey of the landscape, it seems this may already be happening. My prediction: Six Years: The Re-materialization of the Art Object from 2008 to 2014pub. date, October 2014.