Art Papers Volume 10 Number 6 Nov/Dec
Victoria Webb: Nepenthe
Callanwolde Fine Arts Center
Atlanta, GA September16-October 14 1988
Presenting 11 large unframed oils painted this year, Victoria Webb
called her show Nepenthe. Its a mythic allusion.
In Book Four of the Odyssey, Homer cites an Egyptian elixir
supposed by the Greeks to coax forgetfulness of sorrow. And Milton
refers to the drug in Comus. Yet the power and modernity
of Webbs art derives exactly from an ultimate, perhaps unconscious,
refusal of amnesiac bliss. The work realizes the anxious longings
that fuel the urge for the narcotic of release.
The considerable vitality here - of color, primarily, but also
of line - is one of an uneasy rising toward loveliness, of disturbance
masked tantalizingly by veils of green, orange, red, purple. And
its to the degree that the tumult is allowed to show through
the shimmer that each painting achieves the stronger note of force
Given this dynamics of stress, it seems no accident that the paintings,
oftentimes celebrations of a spiritualized Nature, are highly Romantic.
Not only do such titles as Rachmaninoffs Torch, Africa
and Road to Nepenthe echo a poetics of heroism recalling
everyone from Delacroix to Rilke to nearly any aesthetician of the
dream-in-action, but the reliance, in even the figurative canvases,
on private inspiration places the work on the side of
Santayanas art of expression as against communication.
Too, by turns commemorating the jagged undulations of The Blue Rider,
the hurt dazzle of German Expressionism (Webbs colors are
softer than Ensors, sharper than Munchs), and, in one
instance, the dramatic drapery of Titian, Webb sets up a relationship
to history that, however oedipally, consents nonetheless to the
existence of a tradition.
As the works edge further from the literal, the allusions are
more modern. The crisscross brushstrokes of Sound of Rain, Feel
of Water seem a kind of sprung Vorticism. Rachmanioffs
Torch hints at Motherwell, Kline, Hans Hofmann: a stern black
glyph resounds from a subdued jazz of blue, purple, yellow. The
complex blue fluidity of Shallow End reflects Monets
water lilies but also, at least thematically, Hockneys swimming
pools. And the askew nimbus in Moscow might suggest Gottlieb.
The movement from representation to abstraction is best read
in the loose series, Nepenthe, Bridge at Nepenthe, Road to Nepenthe,
wherein mountainous forms evolve, beoming more stylized, ampler,
bolder. In the last, the signal shape is something simply organic
(hills? knuckles? brains?), and the inkling of narrative, present
in many of Webbs paintings, turns from prose to poetry.
The work becomes music as content and technique find a flourish
in a freer touch. While divergent in mood, the meditative, wandering
grid of Shallow End and the pop, yellow wham of Moscow
yet meet in a sensibility of dream, striving, irresolution. Especially
in the four pieces having to do with water, a favorite Webb motif,
the viewer is given a sense of immersion; line and boundary seem
to evaporate, making way for a suffusion of color. Paintings almost
of color for colors sake, they underscore the painters
chief talent, an idiosyncratic chromaticism (a kind of mysticism
of color), while their primal, open-ended symbolism encourages a
reaction in the viewer of intimacy and communion.
Moscow makes another, more ambitious, kind of connection. Not
only does its title conjure up an actuality rich equally in myth
and politics, but its central emblem, no matter how abstracted,
is an LP disc, technological conveyance of the most intuitive of
the arts. And if its field of overwhelming yellow makes this the
most sensually immediate of the paintings, its metaphorical compression
(disc as dark "sun", clash/fusion of nature and culture)
makes it the most intellectually provocative.
Finally, Webbs exhibit displays an impressive, creative
impatience. The variety and generosity of styles and approaches
reveals a painter in process of serious discovery, hand and eye
moving, with an apparent sense of velocity, surety, and inevitability,
toward a tighter tension of expansiveness and depth.
Paul Evans teaches English and Art History at St. Annes-Belfield,
the oldest preparatory school in Virginia. He was editor of the
now-defunct Southline, an Atlanta journal of politics and the arts.
His book reviews have been published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution,
his music criticism in Record and Muzik magazines. He was editor
of Rolling Stone Magazines Encyclopedia of Rock n Roll.
His fiction appears in Puerto Del Sol, a journal of the State University
of New Mexico. He has been writer-in-residence for the Georgia Council
for the Arts and was a member of the Atlanta Poetry Collective.
He has given readings and lectures at the High Museum of Art, Seven
Stages Theatre, Emory University, Georgia Institute of Technology
and for WETV and WRFG.