LINCOLN — Gary Webb, a British sculptor getting his first US museum show at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, has come to the right place.
His sculptures — witty, upright assemblages composed of bright and shiny baubles, glossy Day-Glo colors, and forms that evoke both blown-up children’s toys and high-end domestic design — fit in perfectly at this venue. Cheeky, fizzy, and full of chutzpah, this show — like the deCordova at this time of year — is a mood enhancer, guaranteed.
Better still, even though Webb was born in Dorset, England, in 1973 and studied art at London’s Goldsmiths College in the late 1990s, his work doesn’t feel English. Instead, it’s zestily American. Or at least, it feels complicatedly in love with America, which may not be quite the same thing. (Foreigners get to love America with a license, and a layer of insulation, not granted to natives.)
Webb had his first solo show in 1998 at a commercial gallery in London called The Approach. When his work was included in a group exhibition called “Early One Morning” at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2002, Richard Dorment, the art critic for the Daily Telegraph, raved. Webb, he wrote, was “the most original young artist I’ve come across in almost 15 years of writing art criticism.”
GARY WEBB: Mr. Jeans
“Walking into Webb’s world,” he continued, “is like visiting a really good shopping mall. As soon as you cross the threshold, you leave the real world behind and begin to feel inexplicably safe and happy.”
This is all true. Unfortunately, my young children, who were with me the day I visited, felt so safe and happy that the “No touching” rule and other such strictures went right out the window. (Don’t worry, we intervened just in time.)
Webb’s sculptures draw on diverse, and frequently perverse, inspirations. But they are essentially abstract. What figurative elements they have are the result of whim and fancy, no more.
Take “Tom’s Music,” my favorite piece in the show. It’s upright, it seems to have a head and, oh yes, a kind of arm. You could easily read it as a figure holding up its hand and making a peace sign. Cartoonish and gormless, it’s not a gesture you expect to see even hinted at in serious abstract sculpture.
So it’s funny. But the sculpture succeeds so brilliantly for reasons that have nothing to do with this. Instead, it’s all about color, form, and material.
The first thing you notice is the syrupy bliss of the orange resin (the outsize “hand”) alongside the hot pink ring of the “head.” It’s an outlandish combination, but it produces an instant, overwhelming reaction, like chemical froth spilling forth from a lab beaker.
The only other two shapes are four-sided pyramids — one made from transparent tinted glass, the other from brick and mortar, then inverted and tiered.
You can’t really put into words why these forms work so well together, but it’s surely to do with Webb’s effortless orchestration of contrasts: An amorphous blob against the two rigid pyramid shapes. Warm, textured, inviting brick against the cool diffidence of tinted glass. And the shift from the ring’s void, through the different translucencies of the glass and resin to the opacity of the brick.
You feel the effect of all these contrasts instantly and intuitively, almost physically.
But these works buzz in the mind as well as the body, because they conjure all kinds of cultural associations, too. Not the kinds of “references” you have to read about in longwinded wall labels which end up bearing no relation at all to what’s in front of you. Webb’s allusions are at one with his forms and materials; they’re seamless.
Indeed, it’s here that his wit and his enviably light touch come into play.
A work like “Tom’s Music,” for instance, can suggest, all in the same split second, both the austere rigors of modernist sculpture (one thinks of Brancusi, Picasso) and the kitschy bright colors and mindless novelties of a designer gift shop.
Is it fair to say that Webb is alive to the points where art’s spiritual strivings intersect with the signifiers of status and taste that are more commonly associated with interior decoration? Possibly, though saying it like that feels all wrong. Webb is no innocent naïf. But his work just doesn’t feel so calculated.
All the same, you’ll note that he loves to use materials you find in abundance at outlets for sleek designer furniture: tinted glass, coated steel, aluminum, plastic, dark wood, printed fabric.
Yet even as he uses these materials he undermines all pretensions to classical elegance with his funhouse mirror tricks, his raucous typography, his delirious colors. And he rams home his indifference to taste with memorable titles like “Miami Poo Pipe” and “Dorset Knob.”
Despite such titles, there’s nothing that’s remotely abrasive, judgmental, or critical in Webb’s work. Rather, it’s work that simply delights in mischief.
There were other works I liked almost as much as “Tom’s Music.” One of them, “Buzios,” is an upright, organic vase connected by a curving steel tube to a loop of yellow glass beads, resembling a child’s abacus.
That was more or less it, until installation day, when — according to the museum guard I spoke with — Webb decided to place a bunch of alliums (purple spherical flowers) in the resin vase.
The result is a triumph — not only in terms of texture, shape, and color (the mild purple harmonizes perfectly with the screechy yellow and orange), but as an example of Webb’s wit, too. After all, isn’t this just the kind of inspired, last-minute touch an anxious real estate agent might come up with as she prepared for a house inspection?
Easier than baking a vanilla cake.
“Glo Baby Glo” and a related outdoor piece, “Buzzing It Down,” were two more highlights. The latter — a totem of four brightly colored cast aluminum barrels with organic-looking forms emerging in shallow relief from their surfaces — is the best piece the deCordova has installed outside near its entrance in years. (Wouldn’t it be great if it could stay there?)
Webb’s work is, as I’ve said, unapologetically fun. It draws on sculptural tradition — in particular, the subversive humor of Picasso’s assemblages, the bold naivete of Joan Miro’s and Alexander Calder’s constructions, the austerity of Brancusi, the Pop-inspired bravura of Richard Artschwager.
But to a striking degree, his sculptures feel fresh and original. They have an insouciance, and even a mindlessness — if that word can be used positively — that lead straight to delight. No detours.