I recently visited Gary Webb’s solo show, ‘Key Largo’ at The Approach, London. This was my first exposure to his work in the flesh, and after reading a seemingly contradictory range of descriptions of his practise I did not know what to expect. It is clear that the work is driven by materiality, and definitely not figurative, yet my first question was; is it abstract? For some, ‘abstract’ is a very pure concept, and deviations on the theme render themselves invalid. For others it’s more of a grey area- a notion to be played with. But the Tate’s description of Webb’s work as ‘mixing abstraction with geometry and synthetic found objects with invented forms, he has created an unique hybrid language of his own’ (Tate Collection, ‘Gary Webb’, Elizabeth Manchester, 2004) left me confused. Is abstraction the merely a stylistic device, like geometry, that can be used in this way?
My first impression of the three works in the space was of disappointment, and mild irritation. I had come wanting to know who Gary Webb was, and what his work was about. However the works were so separate, so distinct from one another that any kind of conclusion was impossible to draw.
The first work, Miami Poo Pipe (2010) was a large, cast aluminium shape, a little like a distorted streetlight. This was painted white, and in places with camouflage patches, which apparently were changing colour in response to heated areas within. The base of this rose up like an egg cup, holding a bulbous piece of blown-glass containing distilled water.
The second, Dorset Knob (2010) comprised of four panels of bricks, which had been attached to metal supports and hung on the wall, so as to look like fake brickwork. Rising up out of the brickwork was the outline of the cartoon character Calvin (from the Calvin and Hobbes cartoons by Bill Watterson) urinating over the adjacent panels.
The final piece, Tom’s Music (2010) is based on a four-sized glass trapeze with a collection of yellow brick (or stone) pieces stacked on top. Resting on these is an organic, shiny pink shape with a hole in it, and protruding from the right of the piece is a mirrored shelf, supporting a globular transparent orange form.
There was a laughing evasiveness throughout; a sense that Webb was refusing to be categorised, refusing to assume any pretentions that the work had any meaning beyond the sum of its parts. The press release was an irreverant interview with the artist, where he deliberately avoids associating his work with any external ideas.
‘What about the Calvin cartoon character?’ ‘I don’t know anything about him’. ...‘What were you doing in Woolwich [where you first got the idea for your sculpture ‘Dorset Knob’]?’ ‘Buying toilet roll.’
However, he talks enthusiastically about the materials he uses, all of which are extremely specific and bespoke. What struck me though, as I spent time with the works, was how well made they were, and how thoughtfully they’d been put together. These were not experimental combinations which had been toyed with in a studio- these were manufactured artefacts, made to specification. Every facet was the result of a considered decision.
It is hard to find any writing about Gary Webb that isn’t predominantly descriptive. Aside from the materials of which the works are made, it’s very difficult to speak about what they actually are. Any attempts to assign significance to the elements of the work are quickly brushed aside by the light-hearted titles and the deliberate arbitrariness of his selections. Nevertheless, this rejection of external associations makes you really look at the work in front of you- the colours, textures, and forms and enjoy them on a purely material level. They are simply a juxtaposition of sculptural ideas, and viewed in this light, they’re fresh, fun and eloquent.
However, Webb doesn't let you off the hook quite this easily. I suspect the image of Calvin (the only part of the show which is overtly figurative) exists to confound any conclusions that this is pure abstract materiality, and is deliberately included as a symbol of the ‘non-abstract’. “His art resists description. He's an abstract sculptor, but there are representational elements in his work. He's a pop artist for the 21st century, but with a retro-aesthetic looking back to the 1960s”. (Richard Dorment, ‘Driven to Bliss’ The Telegraph, 2004) As for the matter of whether or not it is abstract- his clear refusal to be drawn one way or the other speaks for itself. Any discussion of his work within the notion of the pure abstract must surely be irrelevant.