ZIEHERSMITH | FEBRUARY 17 – MARCH 26, 2011
The key to Chuck Webster’s work is drawing. His first show at ZieherSmith in 2003—this is his fifth solo exhibition at the same gallery—was packed salon style with drawings, most of them less than two by two feet. Many were done on old paper, rather than the pristine sheets you buy in an art supply store. He was a sponge, absorbing influences as diverse as Forrest Bess, Louise Bourgeois, and Thomas Nozkowski, as well as heraldry and Hindu and Jain iconography. When it came to signs and symbols, he ranged from the archaic to West Coast hot rod culture, developing a sharp eye for isolating a detail or a pattern and making it into something whose source receded along the way. He was not appropriating or citing, and there was nothing ironic about his belief in art and its ability to resist being reduced to a discussion about the production of meaning. In fact, I would advance that meaning has never been his primary concern, which is perhaps why there is something fresh about his work. He was not trying to convince either the viewer or himself about how smart or clever he was, and he was not worried if he did not fully escape his influences. He was articulating his devotion to drawing and painting as solitary activities in which one discovers something whose meaning is not fully comprehended or easily transmitted, and gets pleasure out of doing it. This ambition requires a high degree of obstinacy mixed with a willingness to do the unexpected, however slim one’s chances are of fulfilling this combination, and it seems to me that Webster fits the bill. Just the kind of thing a poet might find kinship with.
While drawing is the key, it is important to know that the paintings are an independent practice. As far as I know, Webster has never made a painting based on a drawing, and he has made hundreds and hundreds of them. In his most recent exhibition, he has further loosened up. Whereas his earlier paintings, say from about five or six years ago, were crisply painted, clearly delineated, emblematic images, his recent ones reveal more of their history. He has moved beyond the devotional. Most of the paintings are modest in size—one could say easily portable. One sees where he has scraped, glazed, painted over, or added. He no longer makes the painting so much as he finds it, moving from the realm of signs to that of things. (My quibbles are small beer; he should think about his palette, which, in this exhibition, tended to run to red too often, and he should begin to think about the figure-ground relationship differently than he has.)
At the same time, there is a trace of self-mockery in his work, as evidenced by the title “Candy Corn Helmet” (2011). What makes this painting more than a sign is the contour line curving away from the tightly stacked, overlapping rows of orange and yellow thumb-like shapes, suggesting a fold of cloth pulled back. In “Held”(2011), the two interlocking shapes resemble the hands of a pallid monster who is carefully considering what he might do next.
Webster’s paintings are both immediate and remote, a combination that bugs many people. His synthesis of the cheerful and the creepy, the inviting and the off-putting (was the painting’s source an instrument of medieval torture? I wondered at least once in the show) connect a palpable, unnamable thing that is simultaneously complete and largely disconnected to a destabilized and free-floating mental space. Find me someone whose thoughts always make sense to them, and I will show you a poor Marxist or a good fundamentalist. This, I think, is what Webster is embracing in his art—that there are places our minds go to that are as compelling as the Sirens Ulysses had to hear, but we are never sure what it is that brings us there or why. I am not talking about trauma or obsessive behavior, terms often leveled against artists, but the pleasure that is integral to the act of making.
Webster wants to see with the eyes in his head, rather than the ones different segments of society keep handing him. It is perfectly understandable why contemporary society reviles art and poetry that upholds the idea that being open to experience and thinking without purpose is preferable to having stated goals or manipulating experience toward our own purposes. You want to know why expressionism is dead? Just consider that a newsworthy emotional disclosure can amount to George W. Bush confessing he feels hurt because Kanye West says he doesn’t care about black people. Or that dangerous windbags like Justin Bieber, Prince Charles, Kim Kardashian and Rush Limbaugh continue to commandeer the headlines. In a world of hucksters, some of whom are gleefully proclaimed by renowned authorities as genius artists, Chuck Webster sits in a room, drawing and painting. The silence of it is radical.