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Anna Fishzon navigates one of the most recent groups of work by Patrick Webb: Intimacies. Placing us in the hands of Punchinello — the main character in Webb’s scenes — Fishzon guides the conversation through the communion of two souls: the artist’s and his alter ego’s.
Punchinello cautiously becomes the thread linking the evolution of two worlds, neither absolute nor separate, between the realities of the artist and his character. Through the artist’s vision, the body takes on a transformative function that is simultaneously aesthetic and political.
Webb’s earlier work shows us the emotional body he inhabited at the time when the AIDS epidemic became a crisis. His art is a statement: he survived. Webb lets us see, in the smoothness of his men’s curves, that aspect of contemporary civilization that has subjected bodies and sexuality to censorship. It also explores Aristophanes’ myth of Androgyne, found in Plato’s Symposium, and how the double spirit of men has now been left to starve to death in sorrow. Webb’s art is a revolutionary breaking point with modern tradition. His men are open, soft, and able to reveal their intimacy and vulnerability in a world that often stigmatizes them. Their spirits rise in an ode to the subtleties of human nature that becomes art.
Punchinello’s individual body is also a social body that, reflecting back, enlightens the collective. Webb presents this otherness through desire, filling the void with the continuity of his characters’ presence (even when his characters are expressed through their objects). A true change of state transports the viewer from the turmoil of the men’s identities to the symbols by which they are united within a critical society.
We witness Punchinello as he interacts with various others in various locations, always dwelling in dense, vivid events that draw their power from Webb’s own life.
The forms that emerge from space to define the limits of Punchinello’s universe reflect the limits of Webb’s own language. The many memories that Webb draws from his own life bring us closer to his reasons for painting. In contrast to the classical contemplative approach to represent the world, Webb has a genuine interest born from his need — or in Webb’s words, “the itch” — to find a personal symbolic system he can use directly to confront life itself. On the empty canvases, his effort to overcome the void of existence breaks through the superficial with layers of meaning and generates a profound male scene full of malleability and ambiguity. This is not just in the form and the use of space but also in his format — “big formats to express big emotions” — as we encounter in his older series of paintings, which can be viewed on his website.
He survived. And here he gives us his testimony. His work is a storytelling of all the elements carefully placed onto any scene of his choosing, with intentional gestures, creating an extraordinary polysemic complexity that demands great sensitivity from the spectators. From the direction of the dildos (their flaccidity or erection), to the tangential appearance of mothers and sisters, Webb builds a glance into his men’s world through a completed man’s soul. Punchinello becomes man’s other half.
Punchinello has the ability to reflect back to the viewer, physically and symbolically, the complexity of Webb’s path in his discovery of his human experience as a gay man.
Webb’s Punchinello appeared in 1990 and is still developing. The artist and his character are deeply connected to the hero’s journey. Patrick Webb’s work is an invitation to intimacy, the intimacy of all men through his creation of Punchinello, who frees us — and contemporary art — from the repression of the penises and the demonization of gays. Webb’s work embraces a melancholic iconography that addresses our gender fluidity.
We invite you to listen to the audio interview that Anna Fishzon does with Patrick Webb within the frame of his exhibition at IPTAR: A controversial show that brought to the surface an interesting tension of prejudices on the physical, human, and political landscape.
— Mafe Izaguirre
Patrick Webb is a painter. His paintings since 1990 have depicted a singular version of the Italian clown Punchinello in contemporary narratives. His work has been exhibited in the United States, Europe, and Asia. He is a Guggenheim Fellow and a grantee from the Ingram Merrill Foundation, Art Matters, the NEA, and the PRATT Institute Faculty Development Program, where he is a professor. Webb is represented by the Ray Wiggs Gallery in Provincetown and will be exhibiting work at Jadite Gallery (November 19–30) and Leslie Lohman Project Space (February 14–16, 2020), both in Manhattan. His work is also on view at patrick-webb.com
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