Art Papers Volume 10 Number 6 Nov/Dec 1988

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’. It’s 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 Webb’s 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 it’s to the degree that the tumult is allowed to show through the shimmer that each painting achieves the stronger note of force and personality.

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 Rachmaninoff’s 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 Santayana’s art of ‘expression’ as against ‘communication’. Too, by turns commemorating the jagged undulations of The Blue Rider, the hurt dazzle of German Expressionism (Webb’s colors are softer than Ensor’s, sharper than Munch’s), 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. Rachmanioff’s 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 Monet’s water lilies but also, at least thematically, Hockney’s 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 Webb’s 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 color’s sake, they underscore the painter’s 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, Webb’s 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

Paul Evans taught English and Art History at St. Anne’s-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 Magazine’s 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. He currently lives in Tucson, Arizona.