PRINT October 2003


A shiny stainless-steel cylinder, roughly the size and proportions of a kitchen trash can, stands on an area of floor covered with tessellating, multicolored, triangular rubber mats, each of which is embossed with the artist’s signature, and some of which are piled into short stacks. Around and above the cylinder, attached by curving poles, are a number of similar but smaller forms. Two brass rods run up one side of the cylinder, then project out at differing angles. The result looks like a half-finished candelabrum. An irregularly shaped sheet of clear Perspex, with smaller pieces of fluorescent yellow and orange Perspex stuck to it, bisects the central form. Near the top of the sheet, these resolve themselves into two initials: “G.W.” Two small Perspex platforms on either side support a pair of smooth, red, heart-shaped pods.

This is an attempt to describe Adam or Gary, 2003, a sculpture by London-based artist Gary Webb, but it doesn’t come all that close to the truth, albeit an alogical one, of its real appearance. It is well-nigh impossible to discuss Webb’s work without being drawn into just such detailed accounts of its complex material juxtapositions—of an extraordinary variety of shapes and substances, a mix of handmade and commissioned, salvaged and off-the-shelf components—but it’s almost as difficult to make those accounts complete. This dilemma has occasioned apologies from at least one other critic, but perhaps this need not be considered such a problem. A good part of the pleasure of Webb’s work comes from its simultaneous seduction and irritation, its presentation of an attractive surface that tauntingly resists effective description.

Webb, a graduate of Goldsmiths College, is happy to answer questions about his work, but the “explanations” he proffers tend toward the oblique. His non sequitur titles aren’t much help either; just what are the names Screws Can Be Bullets, 2002, and BoB&Question, 2003, intended to indicate? In an interview with curator Iwona Blazwick, the artist admitted that “a lot of the work goes back in on itself,” and he champions an “autistic” methodology. His occasional allusion to the environmental (and aesthetic) damage caused by unchecked consumerism taints his work’s sugar-coated surface with a subtly bitter aftertaste, frustrating our comfortable indulgence.

Yet despite what at first appears to be a practice isolated by its eccentricity, curatorial efforts to contextualize it have met with some success. “Early One Morning,” a show organized by Blazwick at Whitechapel Art Gallery in London in 2002, borrowed its title from a 1962 sculpture by Anthony Caro and made a striking stab at aligning Webb and a clutch of his contemporaries from London and Glasgow with the “New Generation” sculptors of forty years ago. Webb, like Caro and Phillip King before him, combines industrially manufactured materials with intense synthetic color while largely avoiding narrative and representational elements—but he moves away from the supposed purity of modernist abstraction into altogether more subjective, ambiguous, even absurdist, realms. Webb admires his predecessors but cites the time he has spent in shopping malls and parking lots as being at least as influential as hours clocked in Tate Britain.

In 2001, at the Approach Gallery in East London, Webb assembled the group exhibition “Brown” (the consciously dour title arrived at, perhaps, in willful contradiction of his burgeoning fashionability). Described by critic Martin Herbert as a “self-portrait by proxy of the curator,” it featured Webb’s own Cock and Bull, 2001, alongside work by contemporaries from the United States and Europe, including Steven Gontarski, Eva Rothschild, Mark Titchner, and Jason Meadows. These were judicious choices; along with Evan Holloway, with whom Webb showed in 2003, Meadows is perhaps the artist’s closest point of reference among rising American sculptors. All three share a talent for recognizing when reality might be improved upon or more profitably left to its own devices. Their ironic treatment of slick, mass-produced artifacts and materials is tempered with a respect for the ungovernable poetic potential that these substances invariably retain. Webb and his contemporaries pit surface and sincerity against one another as though to discover which one holds sway.

This tension informs sculptures like Mumdadland, 1997, and Ha Llo, 1999, which bear the traces of Webb’s early (though soon rejected) experience in furniture design and toy with the knowingly retro, late-’60s “lounge” aesthetic that has become a high street standard (think of Verner Panton and his imitators). In “Nouveau Riche,” a collaboration with Keith Farquhar at the Approach in 2000, he extended this association by contributing to a room-size environment that could almost be called domestic. The glowing, angular structures that comprise Webb’s Love on Rocks, 2000, and For the Artist, 2000, jibed nicely with Farquhar’s installation of carpeting as part of Order for the Approach, 2000, producing a hypermodern simulacrum of living space, a snarky millennial revamp of the classically aspirational bachelor pad.

Added to the pileup of disparate visual elements in Webb’s sculptures is the fact that some of them also talk. Or sing, or scream, or argue with themselves. Exactly what they come out with is subject to schizophrenic variation, swinging from knockabout humor and kitschy fun to loaded musical references. A Mini- Disc system in Love on Rocks emits a stream of babble, while from somewhere inside the toy coffin in Been There, Seen It, Done It, 1999, a tiny voice shouts, “Let me out of here!” The title of Webb’s solo debut at the Approach in 1998, “Gary Webb plays Gary Webb,” clearly heralded the landing of a sizable ego but also provided a clue to one of his major inspirations. I Love Black Music, 1998, voiced it unequivocally. The notion of the artist as DJ may have long since become a cliché, but Webb at least merits the comparison, manning the sculptural decks at his own wild party.

Another try at description: In Mirage of Loose Change, 2001, a thick, rough-cut black granite shelf, upholstered in blue and yellow plastic, supports a three-dimensional doodle of chrome. Affixed to a separate, movable section of pipe is a long slab of wood riven by a series of small, curving incisions. Above this, a bundle of salmon-pink neon spells out the word KISS, black wires trailing around it and down to the floor. Far from the postmodern mishmash this might have become in lesser hands, it here evinces the emergence of something like a virtuoso, an artist able to salvage exquisitely awkward combinations of object and part-object, phrase and pseudophrase. Witness that title, so confident in its own apparent significance that we almost overlook its actual obscurity, and note the curling neon tongue that licks at the errant text. Holding diverse elements together long and tight enough for them to begin, against the odds, working with one another, Webb finally adds the kiss-off in the form of that perfectly counterintuitive finishing touch.

Michael Wilson is a New York–based writer.