Goodman Gallery Johannesburg
02.07.2015 – 13.08.2015
Jessica Webster’s latest show at the Goodman Gallery Johannesburg is titled ‘Murderer.’ According to the artist it is based on a ‘found’ Korean action thriller called A Bittersweet Life (2005) and Webster’s experiences as a survivor of violence. While it is clear what Webster’s primary content comprises, based on these two references, her use of material on the other hand requires a deeper engagement for various reasons.
The first is that she uses two very different approaches – digital imagery and actual paint on canvas. This immediately detaches her practice from the traditional mode of painting where the white canvas is transformed into an image. Instead here, the canvas pre-empts the imagery. The combination of these two approaches does indeed generate a visual language that invokes a ‘fictitious reality,’ but this starts to read ineptly in some instances where the digital backgrounds are simply used as backdrops. There are however moments where these backgrounds become textual, employing a visual language that borrows from painting itself. As noted by the artist, for her ‘…painting has a similar relationship with language and the potential of meaning.’ This meaning it appears, is determined by the extent to which the viewer is offered insight into her use of references but also the theoretical thinking underpinning her process.
The second most prominent aspect in Webster’s work is the use of text. Text in artworks tends to perform two roles. It can either further elaborate on what the viewer is presented with or complicate his/her understanding of what is it that they are viewing. In this case, it seems that the latter is more applicable as the use of text in her work is rooted in personal experiences. The viewer cannot easily decipher the meaning and its association to the imagery and so the synergy created between the two relies too heavily on a closer examination of the content and its relationship to material. In other words the digital imagery informs the manipulation of the painting itself. In the end the process of using digital imagery, painting and text reads as the artist intended, which is ‘…the seductiveness of a purposeless aesthetic.’
In general the show is well curated which may also be attributed to the well-manicured space in which it is presented. There is also a sense that in addition to this being Webster’s debut solo show in a major art gallery, the artist felt compelled to show as much as possible. This is not necessarily what the work may require but it speaks volumes about the manner in which a gallery introduces an artist to a larger audience and how this is crucial in determining the reception and visibility of that artist. If the gallery is prominent the chances are that artist will be taken with a certain level of criticality and analysis based on the prominence of that gallery. Galleries in South Africa have therefore become emblematic of how artistic careers are shaped and determined by the spaces where artists show their work.
‘Murderer’ is therefore not a painting show but rather a show about process and the gallery offering a place to reflect on this process by firstly presenting it to a larger audience – that is moving from a studio space into the public realm – and secondly mounting it in a commercial gallery space where it is now consumable. This may further explain why in some instances of the exhibition the quantity of the work overwhelms its quality. This is not to say that Webster is not an exceptional painter but rather that in so doing the emphasis is placed on providing an overview of her artistic repertoire rather than selectively choosing works that substantiate her thinking around her process. Furthermore it should be noted that this process is under the umbrella of a lineage of white South African female painters – from Maggie Laubser to Irma Stern to Marlene Dumas to Penny Siopis to Deborah Poynton to Lisa Brice and Carla Busittil – whose works occupy a particular autonomy in the tradition of painting in South Africa. By negating the traditional lexicon of painting in the same manner as these artists, Webster is confirming a cultural capital in how their work has navigated the commercial art world.