ART / Small objects of desire: Boyd Webb makes still lifes from balloons and nails and Anaglypta wallpaper. This is a world in which ordinary objects are made flesh - nasty, shrivelled, disconcerting flesh
Andrew Grice has been Political Editor of The Independent since 1998. He was previously Political Editor of The Sunday Times, where he worked for 10 years, and he has been a Westminster-based journalist since 1982. His column, Inside Politics, appears in The Independent each Saturday.
Tuesday 03 May 1994
But what, exactly, is Boyd Webb's field? It gets harder to define as the years pass: not quite installation art, not quite sculpture, not quite collage or assemblage, not quite photography, but a slippery combination of genres. 'Boyd Webb' at Brighton City Art Gallery, a touring exhibition of new work, sees him not branching out, exactly, but branching in. He is, still, lost in his own world, a world of laborious studio arrangements and disconcerting set-ups involving all kinds of strange objects, or ordinary objects made strange - balloons stuffed with nails, lengths of carpeting twisted to form seas, an old duvet folded and photographed to resemble, disconcertingly, flesh - but it has shrunk and contracted.
His oddities have always been meaningful, his eccentricities pointed, and Webb's world was always meant to be a Surreal version of the real world, a bizarre yet germane paradigm of The Way Things Are. But its meanings have changed and it is a smaller place than it once was, more microcosm than macrocosm: a place ruled by small organic hordes, by microbes and bacilli fighting small wars of survival.
Webb has also grown less theatrical with the passing of time, less elaborate in his techniques and devices. Once, he choreographed weird scenes of impending catastrophe and gave them implicit ecological subtexts. The man balancing on a stool tugged at by a tortoise attached to said stool by a piece of string was Webb's way of distilling into a single image the idea of an ecosystem under threat. But that - Webb set it up and snapped it and called it simply, Tortoise - was way back in 1984. These days, Webb's set-ups are simpler and more like still lifes, and they hint at different, more intimate and less generalised human fears and anxieties and predicaments. They hint at things going wrong, not in the outside world or the universe at large, but internally. The momentum of Webb's career suggests, too, the momentum of an argument: mess with things on the outside, change and denature them too much, and things will begin to happen to your insides too.
Every new Webb is a small miracle of transfiguration: a lurid dystopia conjured with conviction from ludicrously mundane things. A shrivelled pink balloon, terminally deflated but still somehow menacing, lies on a glistering sheet of kitsch silvered wallpaper. Nearby, a cluster of small and faintly disgusting twists of multi-coloured Plasticine evoke antibodies exhausted by struggle. Webb calls the ensemble Germ and it is a model, in its way, for his art as a whole: the germ of an idea, translated into an unlikely combination of things.
The unreliable liveliness of biology, human and otherwise, has become a leading Webb concern - a liveliness that cannot be controlled and that is running fast out of control. Balloons are convenient emblems of this and Webb makes them infinitely suggestible. Stuffed with nails, they become swollen and cancerous organs, loitering with malicious intent on the expanses of bubblewrap or Anaglypta wallcovering that are Webb's analogues for tissue, for the fleshy insides of the body. Strewn with artful carelessness on a field of blue embossed wallpaper, a little fold of phallic Plasticine protruding from the nozzle of each, they become bit-players in an eternal comedy of sexual desire and its fulfilment: a little army of limp penises and empty scrotal sacs, resting itself for the next assault. Salvo, Webb calls it.
There is love and courtship in Webb's new mises-en-scene, but it is not exactly romanticised: seen more as a reflex, a blind biological impulse rather than the stuff of which poetry is made. A pair of leggy, bright pink Chinese radishes, dressed in a miniskirt made from old curtain material, performs a dance of seduction while an inert green chilli pepper just lies there like a cross between a phallus and a slug. White Plasticine spermatozoa, teeming across a wasteland of lime green wallpaper, mount an attack on an egg yolk suspended (its membrane squeezed to bursting point) in a pink net of the kind greengrocers keep tangerines in.
The egg-as-ovum makes another appearance too, this time as a multiple, in a Webb called Ebb: a line of leaking yolks dangling, netted, in space, dribbling gouts of yellow. This is a reflection on the messiness of sex and, perhaps, its unsafeness: the exchange of bodily fluids seen as a fact of life. Sob is a small, sad, dangling phallus, made of canvas or rubber, hard to tell which, extruded through a piece of embossed wallpaper and urinating red and wormy strands of Plasticine. Webb looks back, distantly, to the Surrealists' world of copulating biomorphs - the world of Tanguy's sightless fornicating tumescent lumps of indeterminately organic matter; the world of Dali's hot and crawling mounds of indiscriminate and unnameable flesh. But sexiness run riot, in his work, leads to a form of post-coital melancholy. This is what Surrealism looks like when it has been diagnosed HIV-positive.
The make-do-and-mend quality of Webb's work armours it against accusations of portentousness. There is something endearingly DIY and Blue Peter-ish ('here's one I prepared earlier') about it, but that is also what gives it its capacity to disconcert, to cause the slight but jolting shock of recognition that these works, at their most effective, elicit. He might be described as the Richard Long, or the Andy Goldsworthy, of the prefabricated and urban world: an artist who works with found industrial materials, the stuff of mass marketing rather than the stuff of nature, and yet manages to make them as eloquent, if not more so, about man's uneasy relationship with himself and with the natural world. Webb can find sublimity, or absurdity, in a party-size pack of children's balloons - and that is, in itself, something of an achievement.
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