ZIEHERSMITH GALLERY | NOVEMBER 13 – DECEMBER 20, 2008
Since the 1960s, certain portions of the conceptual art world have been on a mission to emancipate art’s intellectual essence from its corporeal burden—to 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 Webster’s 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 Webster’s 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 painting’s 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, Webster’s 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 Webster’s work leads one to accept each painting as part of an uninterrupted sequence. For example, “Gannet,” an O’Keeffian-looking ribcage-shape set against a pale, worked-in background, functions on the same premise as the other paintings in the exhibition—a 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 who’s keeping score? As Barnett Newman said, “Aesthetics is for the artist as ornithology is for the birds.” I don’t 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 can’t help but see my somatic response to Webster’s 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 Webster’s 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 2014—pub. date, October 2014.