New York

Boyd Webb

Sonnabend Gallery

Boyd Webb’s British humor (which characteristically drew few laughs from American viewers) combines Monty Python silliness and staginess with neo-Realist postwar street settings, neo-Ovidian metamorphoses and Olympian perspectives, and the loony serenity of diaper and baby-food commercials. The operative metaphor for all of this seems to be something like “big mother is watching.” In his Cibachromes and in his blackly comedic film, Scenes and Songs from Boyd Webb, 1984, almost everyone is a mother or overtly maternal. Fertility icons obviously abound: mother’s milk in the form of dairy products saturates the film. In one photograph, Mum, in a printed housedress, takes over Atlas’ job, looking a little dubious and perhaps only momentarily successful under her planetary burden. We can assume this is Mum because there are numerous children in the photographs and in the film, and because at one point in the latter she sends various vegetables out into the world (or rather sends them into orbit around it) with a push as gentle and familiar as the one that sends playground swings aloft.

The maternal bond is ubiquitous in Webb’s work. In addition to womblike weightlessness in space or underwater, there are several objects that read clearly as umbilical cords. In Accessories, 1985, floating out on a leash from the spaceship Earth are signs of home and hearth—what looks like a “space” heater and what doesn’t look like but is a piece of knitting and needles, both trying and almost succeeding in being UFOs. Perhaps these aren’t Ovidian, but they are metamorphoses. And the emphatically fake nature of Webb’s settings—carpet for grass, paper for sky—reminds one of Bottom’s and Quince’s view of Ovidian transformation in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: it is a conceit whose artificiality should be overlooked.

Inversions seem to tickle Webb. The most impressive of these occurs in a scene from the film during which eggs are dropped into a wire basket that hangs beneath a stage-set planet Earth. Gradually (and not for the first time), the world turns topsy-turvy, and the albumen and yolk that had dripped down now reach upward in one of the most moving of resurrections, a recovery of losses. With its gentle swaying and precarious position, the image echoes the nursery rhyme “Rock-a-bye-baby.” In many instances Webb’s work reassures in much the same way a parent comforts a child upset at the line "And down will come baby, cradle and all.” In Candy Floss, 1983, what looks like pieces of pink flesh caught in a vise turns out to be cotton candy; the photograph is the equivalent of a parent’s turning on the light to reveal the ghosts as merely pieces of furniture. It’s only a nightmare, a movie, a trick. Webb’s fake sets are part of the make-believe.

This parenting and the positioning of bodies as overseers of the world is Olympian, cases in point being Purchases, 1985, and Bedding, 1985, photographs in which a father figure presides over the earth providing food and comfort. But not everything can be made right; some things that the world may treat as playthings are dangerous yet cannot be conjured away. The warlike toy jeeps in one film sequence contribute to an essay on self-destruction. A man rolls a cigarette while the jeeps, tethered to his ankles, move in circles around his legs. Each bears a tall lighted candle with which the man attempts to light his cigarette. He succeeds, smoking in deep satisfaction as the jeep-born candles char his crotch. Although it is a man who figures in this scene and although other of Webb’s phallic symbols are often destructive, his vision is not simply a brand of Futurism in which Dada acts more like Mama. There are the repeated images of the vise and the labial construction that appears in Clenched, 1985, in which the world is pressed into an ellipsoid between the lips of an overwhelming galaxy, a melding of Freudian and Einsteinian relativity.

Webb’s images represent, perhaps, a fear of maternal suffocation, and the need for independence as well as attachment seems to be one of his major points. Intrusive, often technological, surveillance is repeatedly fought off by his characters. In the film, a periscope watches young boys on a beach and later a grown man. The man, having calmly finished his yogurt (endorsed in one of the brief realistic “commercials” that interrupt the more poetic parts of the film), uses the container to blind the intrusive "eye.” Two morals may be at work here: one about imbibing mother’s milk and then decisively ending the symbiosis, the other about using the technocracy against itself. In such a way one could fight the perversion of a protective watchfulness over the world into its domination.

Jeanne Silverthorne