I have been following Chuck Webster’s work since his first show at Zieher Smith in 2003, where he employed different mediums on different kinds of antique and found paper. It was obvious to me that Webster loved to draw in both dry and liquid mediums, anything capable of making a line. Drawing was where he began merging his imagination and practice. One of the things I liked about that first show was his refusal to settle on a style: drawing was about experimenting rather than solidifying a signature look.
More recently, in the summer of 2016, Webster showed 100 drawings in a two-person show, MANTEGNA: William Kentridge and Chuck Webster at David Krut Projects (June 23, 2016 to July 29, 2016). Both artists made work in response to Andrea Mantegna’s series of nine large paintings, The Triumphs of Caesar (1484-1492). For Kentridge, this meant one large woodcut, while for Webster it meant drawing on mostly small pieces of paper. In many of his drawings, Webster filled the surface with numerous, small, interconnected shapes. While Mantegna inspired him, Webster also seemed to be recalling the vast spaces of movie crowd scenes, filled with teeming figures, from cartoons to monster films to historical dramas.
A number of drawings I saw in that show came to mind when I went to his exhibition, Chuck Webster: Look Around at Betty Cuningham, which closes today (Saturday, February 18, 2017). If you have not seen this show, do yourself a favor and go. It augurs a turning point in the artist’s work.
The largest painting in the exhibition, “Liberty or Death” (2013-2016), is seven feet high and ten feet across. The palette is brown, ocher, and red, reminiscent of tobacco, mustard, and dried blood. This painting is filled with striped, mallet-like forms streaming into deep space and terminating in the lower left-hand corner. We seem to be standing on a slope, watching them move past as they spread out, diving into two groups in order to make their way around a huge, multi-part form sitting in the middle ground and rising to the painting’s top edge.
The lower half of the multi-part form is made of intertwined trunk-like branches, as if a pretzel were winding in and around itself. Countless mallets rise out of the knotted and woven structure as a wall of dark brown looms in the distance, its wavy top edge defined by a banner-like strip unfurling across most of its length. We read the banner as glowing sky, while the wavy contour transforms the wall’s edge into a mountain’s undulating crest.
On the right side, just past and above the middle ground, tiny versions of the mallet-like forms move down some kind of roadway towards an arched opening in the bottom left corner, at the foot of the dark brown flat plane (mountain or wall) in the far reaches of the painting’s deep space. The lighting is dramatic, and the tonal shifts are subtle but clear. Look carefully at the panel’s dark left side, and a large mallet forms peers through the paint. Although Webster works with a limited, tonal palette, he is able to achieve sweeping, abrupt, theatrical shifts in shadow and light.
“Liberty or Death” is a breakthrough painting for Webster and, in that regard, a major step for this artist, whose work is always interesting. For one thing, he has opened up a vast space which he has populated with his striped mallet-like beings, an invented form that is simultaneously abstract and figurative, human and alien. It is the kind of space we might associate with the fantastic compositions of the English Romantic painter John Martin.
That Webster is successfully able to pull this kind of space off now, when many abstract artists still approach spatiality with caution, is cause for celebration. Second, the space Webster has created requires that he ponder how and where he places the forms. The large, partially obscured, mallet-like shape on the left is embedded in the paint, while the tiny ones appear eager to be swallowed up by the deep space of the dark wall they are rushing toward. In fact, Webster carves out two distinct spaces in the painting, a layered one on the left and a receding one on the right. With all that is going on, the viewer’s attention is kept busy.
“Liberty or Death” suggests that Webster is on the move. A painter of gnarly abstract forms, many of which are sectioned by a thick black line into smaller parts, calling to mind cellular forms, aerial maps, or the hide of a monster, the introduction of space vastly broadens his possibilities.
What I like about these recent paintings is the different ways they evoke the body as something awkward and ungainly. Look at the rows of teeth-like shapes in “Red Cavalry” (2010) or the large red, sectioned and spreading form descending from the top edge in “City to Love” (2013-2016) — another painting Webster has worked on for years — and one sees a relentless push by an artist who has always tested what he could do with paint.
In “Liberty or Death,” Webster transports us to a domain of lemmings or an angry, determined army of like-minded souls. That’s the beauty of this painting — it is clear that something dramatic is taking place but we are not sure what. It is, however, a place that Webster could have discovered only through the medium of paint.
Chuck Webster: Look Around ends today at Betty Cuningham Gallery (15 Rivington Street, Bowery, Manhattan)
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