Interrupting the Darkness of the Night : Recent Paintings of Brent Webb
By Dominique Nahas © 2013

Brent Webb’s recent paintings transmit energy and information as if freighted with urgency. He creates mesmerizing scenarios that refer not so much to the spectacle (inner or outer) as much as his imagery alludes to consciousness attending to a hold of memories or memories deferred, unwanted memories, memories held in abeyance, or implacable memories stubbornly serving as immemorial placeholders. In Webb’s world memoration serves not as placatory device, relief valve or appeaser. 

Instead, the hard-to-forget appears as would an irrefutable, undeniable guest who has overstayed his welcome yet who insists on remaining and occupying the space once offered to him out of hospitality with the requisite conditions originally agreed to ignored, defied, neutralized, subverted. This terrifying, now-unwelcome guest, the one you can’t get rid of, terrorizes while territorializing the self with its presence.
 I Didn't See That One Coming. Detail. Brent Webb (2012)
In Living in the End Times Slavoj Zizek writes: “If the Freudian name for the ‘unknown knowns’ is the Unconscious the Freudian name for the ‘unknown unknowns’ is trauma, the violent intrusion of something radically unexpected, something the subject was absolutely not ready for, and which it cannot integrate in any way.” It is clear that Webb’s paintings have a magnified sense of vitality that attends to them, that clings to them with no hint of uncertainty. In his work Webb paints several types of trauma (the Greek word for wound). These include intrusions and memory of such inferring street violence or brutality (Is there Something I Am Missing Here?) in which a dog is lifted and held tight as it squirms to get away from the strong unyielding grasp of a restrainer. In Going Out with Both Guns Blazing Webb depicts a scene that seems phantasmagoric and evanescently wafting out of view of the perceiving and coordinating brain. Perhaps this work refers to a cognitive disrepair and ruination due to a biologic or metabolic or neural non-functioning caused by brain lesions, Alzheimer’s, or cerebral tumors. Another type of traumatic violence that is brought up is of the social-symbolic type in which someone suffers from the effects of social exclusion or ostracization.

Such symbolic violence, emanating perhaps from a family culture, is inferred from the compositions We Charge into Danger and I Didn’t See That One Coming. In these two narratives Webb depicts the boy and man at play yielding (or submitting to masochistic demands) to a high-stakes zero-sum-game in which to finish means not-caring if one survives intact or not. What is apparent yet wondrous with this body of work is its unrelenting nature. By this I mean that Webb creates scenes that have an obdurate apparitional quality, images that occupy both regimes of (in) sight and blindedness. In other words this apparitional quality is stubborn because it won’t go away, but also because it is frustratingly incomplete in the sense that it covers itself up just as much as it seems to reveal key episodic events for memory to circulate.

There Are So Many Ways For This To End Badly. Brent Webb (2012)Such obdurate persistence is evident, for example, in the oil painting There Are So Many Ways for This to End Badly. In this work the psychic devastation that Webb invites the viewer to behold, and to experience, is suggested through the title and the image it attends to. The damage, the trauma, that is inferred here is that in which the self pre-anticipates (even expects) the possibility of its own damage. In this remarkable work what seems clear is that the fantasy that Webb is depicting is one of an induced self-fulfilling prophesy in which the child is rehearsing for what he expects to come true thus hastening the traumatic event-to-be in some way (mentally, ideationally, psychically or materially). What is moving and convincing is the way Webb constructs and paints this affective interior world. Webb has a way of positioning his figures in space that is uniquely his. Deep flesh, soma, is acutely inferred, pictorially, by the artist. Inner states of stress come alive. The child, looking from a hillside at a distant burning train wreck, is seen from the back, fists clenched, back wracked with terror, grief, hopelessness, helplessness, and anger. The child’s head seems enveloped with dirty bandages, as if to invoke the tragedy of a perpetual head-wound victim or survivor of wreckage looking down at events that he has escaped physically, but will always be involved in mentally and psychically through memory (deferred or not).

In painterly terms Brent Webb is a tonalist; he paints atmospherically. He is a master of connotation, using carefully applied denotative mark making with singular precision so as to invoke what he terms in his artist’s notes as “The captur[ing] of the dream’s substance. Its essence.” That is to say that Webb’s gifts at evocation of the dream fragmented, deferred, ephemeralized through the act of painting becomes a process in which [in his words] “...I maneuver back and forth between the imaginary of the past and the rationality of the present.”  In his works the overall theme of the impossibility of integration and harmony with the world and all of its living creatures is poignantly felt and the feeling of presencing oneself in such a world takes on an apparitional and spectral, even haunting quality that is movingly real. It is so because at the heart of Brent Webb’s work, so redolent of malediction, is essential content that pulsates through each of his paintings like an irregularly beating heart.
There Are Truths You Must Learn To Confront. Brent Webb (2012)The beating of this heart is in synch with what one might call a Metamodern sensibility that incorporates a neoromantic inclination that equivocates between affirming the interplay between the tragic and the sublime (as a true Romantic would) and between believing in the Belief or Hope that there is something else altogether that makes a difference, in spite of one’s self and yet because of the self. The content of Webb’s paintings that bear down on ostensible themes of hope and melancholy, totality and fragmentation, empathy and apathy speaks to a Metamodern situation within the self that swings erratically around the poles of hope, despair and indifference.

Webb’s paintings exist within a self-reflective spectrum of naïve empathic enthusiasm, apathy, and ironic self-knowingness. Webb's scenes (and the way they are painted) capture a propensity towards inconclusiveness or deferral that forms the essence of the times we are living in. The apparitional aspect  (“it” appears, “it” disappears, “it” appears, “it” disappears, in sporadic, intermittent pulses) of Webb’s work I referred to in the earlier part of this essay has something to do with this anarchic inconclusiveness factor.

Now, today, we look at our lives and how they have been set into motion; we hope for the best yet expect nothing; we hedge our bets; we whistle walking by the graveyard (just in case) yet not believing in superstitions (really) but ready to admit that perhaps good-fortune charms may work in our favor despite our disbelief in them. Webb’s paintings have a Metamodern tone that speaks to the pervasive condition that expects reliable disappointment from the world and yet doesn’t deal with this situation by being a martyr about it or feeling one develops into an ideal, a hero, by having to contend with this condition, either.  A kind of informed naiveté, a pragmatic idealism that works through deferral is the structure of feeling that permeates Webb’s paintings.

Such a structure would entail saying, for example, that while we don’t entirely disavow belief in karmic re-distribution of forces we don’t quite dare affirm this belief too much either for fear of having the other shoe (of annihilation) land on one’s head; more to the point would be to find ourselves emitting the Beckettian “mirthless laugh” that laughs “ at that which is unhappy.”

Webb’s work has an unmistakable viable energy that gives off more heat than it consumes because the artist has committed himself for many years to the one essential task that is the one requisite for growth: the cultivation of one’s inner vulnerabilities and a commitment to taking on the life-affirming task of self-revealment, come what may. The end results in this case are Brent Webb’s declaratory and singular paintings. They bear the marks of emotional ferment, intellectual growth and change. Also beating within such work bespeaks of heartrending sadness attended to by what I would call a feeling of radical grace.  It permeates Webb’s painterly and pictorial strategies, allowing the dream’s full measure of obfuscation, radical inconclusiveness and radiant lucidity to see the light of day.

Dominique Nahas is an independent curator and cultural critic based in Manhattan.
A professor of critical theory at Pratt Institute, he is also a critique faculty member of the New York Studio Residency Program. Nahas, a former museum curator and museum director, is an established writer, editor, and arts panelist.
Major national and international art journals and websites for which he has written include Art Experience: NYC, ARTNews, Art in America, dART International, Flash Art, Artnet, Paris Photo, Sanat Dunyamiz, Sculpture, and Trans among many others.
His recent monograph “The Worlds of Hunt Slonem” (Vendome Press) was released in 2011.

  There Are So Many Ways For This To End Badly
  We Charge Into Danger!
  Is There Someting I Am Missing Here?
  Going Out With Both Guns Blazing
  I Didn't See That One Coming
  Why Are You Here?
Because You're Here...
Then Why Am I Here?!
  There Are Truths You Must Learn To Confront
  All Paintings
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