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

In another life, Boyd Webb might have done well in advertising. The inventor of bizarre photographic tableaux, the deviser and recorder of enigmatic mises-en- scene harbouring emblematic intent, could so easily have been the Bartle Bogle Hegarty visualiser. As it is, Webb remains the unacknowledged influence behind untold numbers of ads. His artful, cunning and punning photographic tableaux were the models for Silk Cut and Benson & Hedges campaigns mounted the world over. The pay might be worse, in his field, but at least he can content himself with the knowledge that he is his own master.

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.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project