New York

Boyd Webb

In recent years Boyd Webb’s photographic setups have focused on encounters between culture and nature, often carried out with violence: violins being ground up between gigantic molars, or a man struggling to extract himself from a turbulent sea. Now Webb has left out the human figure altogether, and given his large, cheery color prints an almost environmentalist twist. In Eyeless, 1989, a small flock of deflated rubber geese are arranged in a circle above the camera and framed against a bright yellow sky; the neck of one goose droops through a squarish hole cut into the clear plastic sheet the geese are sitting on. In Lipreading, 1989, the culture-nature split is presented with such baldly allegorical figures as to be comic: a violin sags through some netting at one end of the image, counterbalancing still more deflated ducks on the other end.

Using cartoonish props and brightly colored backgrounds, Webb gives his images a sometimes oppressive cheeriness. The obvious artificiality of his setups lends them a campy, superficial feeling that ties them to the consumerist kitsch sculpture of Jeff Koons or Haim Steinbach. But Webb’s dreamlike narratives are linked to Surrealism as well; in one recent work, not shown here, snakes dangle down from the plastic-sheet sky toward another symbol of culture, a sheaf of sheet music.

The stage machinery of Webb’s ironic tableaux, clumsily and craftily left visible, often serves both practical and formal purposes. The plastic sheet, which in some images is replaced by wide-mesh netting, divides here from there, the world of the picture from that of the viewer. It’s also a formal trope, neatly (and cutely) evoking the Modernist grid and questions of pictorial space. On a more basic level, this sheet also serves to divide things up there , in the artificial heaven of the setup, from our earthly existence here below, outside the neat, timeless order of the picture. That the creatures in this plastic empyrean are not angels, no longer even birds, but crumpled rubber images of birds, is telling. In this light the holes cut into the plastic are trapdoors to heaven, windows in the shell of the sky; the sagging, spreading mesh of the netting, in turn, is the flaw in the pictorial perfection of the composition.

Even in its loose ends, the world Webb constructs is thoroughly considered, planned, artificial, enacted rather than acting. It’s also a little goofy and endearing. In the end, though, his pictures implicitly raise disturbing questions—about the destruction of the natural world, and about the artificial world of images and simulacra with which we are attempting to replace it.

Charles Hagen