Ever since I first saw one of Sally Webster’s paintings in the group exhibition, Dark Star: Abstraction and Cosmos at Planthouse (April 7–May 10, 2016), organized by Raymond Foye, I have wanted to see more of her work. In my review, I described Webster’s painting as follows:
[…] crammed with radiating orbs, concentric circles, dots, cellular and paramecium-like shapes that are cartoony but somehow don’t become a cartoon.
While this painting prepared me for some of the compositional devices that Webster used in the 12 works in Sally Webster: Daydream Believer at 33 Orchard, her subjects and compositions varied wildly. Despite the obvious visual differences, what the paintings do share is a concentrated field of activity, and an attention to detail, organized in oil paint on a small surface measuring from 12 by 12 inches to 16 by 21 inches.
Webster loves to bring together two or more patterns, but she does not limit herself to doing this. The two most notable exceptions to this — one a fantasy image and the other a still-life view of a table top — suggest that the artist has little interest in being consistent and developing a brand. It is as if Webster — who went to art school but did not study painting — is intent on discovering what she can do in the medium of oil paint. Like other sophisticated, self-taught artists — ranging from Robert Ryman to Martin Wong — she seems to be devoted to integrating the details with the whole picture, making every part equally important.
In “Medusa” (2017), Webster superimposes spiraling black bands over a tightly fitted field of colored triangles painted in primary and secondary colors. In some areas, the triangles are small and feel further away from the picture plane; in other areas, they are larger and appear closer to the surface. Superimposed over these layers is a wig-like shape — resembling a horseshoe — made of densely packed green phosphorescent snakes. If, as the myth goes, looking at Medusa causes the viewer to turn into stone, Webster transforms this into another possibility: looking at her painting can be hallucinatory and hair-raising, but not fatal. Or, more perversely, what we are looking at is an exploding head. It is on this fine line between visual perversity and offbeat humor that Webster treads in paintings such as “Medusa,” “Fright Wig” (2016), and “Wigzag” (2014).
In the diptych “Spiral” (2014), Webster depicts two circular forms made up of concentric circles of bead-like shapes. While the source could be an African coaster made of beads, Webster transforms it into a mesmerizing visual presence.
In “Red” (2017), Webster continues her evocations of a parallel cosmos by jam-packing the surface with different circular orbs that could be buttons, candies, or planetary forms, all of which are a shade of red, with the painting’s black ground peering through the narrow slivers of space surrounding some of the volumetric forms. The painting is pleasantly dizzying, like a harmless drug. The humor running through Webster’s paintings can be goofy and good-natured. The intensity of her devotion to detail makes them more than that. What we see is a record of her attention to every inch of the painting’s surface, a careful accounting.
In the figurative painting “For Jane” (2017), a black-feathered bird stands in a blue rudderless boat drifting under a deep violet night sky dotted with pink stars. Boat and bird are pointed towards the brightest star, whose rays are pink. The fact that Webster is not being ironic about an image that could easily have devolved into something sentimental or kitschy is really what lifts this work into another realm. Moreover, there is something unlikely about this view, its combination of colors and elements (bird, boat, stars, night sky), which makes the current of symbolism feel real and invented rather than appropriated and cliché. This is Odilon Redon updated — a visionary statement.
It is worth noting that in her other figurative painting, “Experiment” (2016), Webster depicts an aerial view of a yellow tabletop on which we see an incongruous gathering of familiar items, including a knife, orange slices, a magnet, a screwdriver, and a matchbox filled with wooden matches. The collection is neither quite right nor quite wrong, which is to say it is arbitrary.
If you are an ardent fan of Sally Webster, you know that she did three close-up views of crying babies in 2009-10, and that they were included in a group show in a gallery in the East Village that was open only by appointment. In the 1970s and ’80s, she was the fierce singer of the Bay Area punk band, The Mutants. Bruce Conner, another uncompromising artist, took many photographs of the band, some of which were included in his glorious exhibition, BRUCE CONNER: IT’S ALL TRUE at the Museum of Modern Art (July 3 – October 2, 2016). Despite the generational difference, Webster and Conner share a rebellious, anarchic spirit melded to a meticulous approach. Uninterested in fitting in, or being charming, or acting snarky, ironic, or smug — all forms of presentation the class-conscious art world has celebrated — Webster is a true renegade who, in her paintings, has mastered synthesizing mayhem and repetition.
Sally Webster: Daydream Believer continues at 33 Orchard (33B Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through January 7.