‘I mean, a lot of painting is about looking behind the beautiful object, you know? What lies beyond, what lies beneath. I wanted to challenge myself even more in that regard,’ says the artist Jessica Webster outside of her latest exhibition of paintings at Johannesburg’s Goodman gallery. ‘This show is beautiful, but there are also a lot of very gnarly aspects to it.’
Titled ‘A Horse with No Name’, Webster’s latest solo show wrestles with a number of conflicting ideas and interpretations around painting and perception alike, largely communicated through her use of material. Labour and leisure, freedom and restriction, and beauty and non-beauty are a few of the thematic binaries and tensions that emerge in this considerable body of work, many of which are a result of Webster’s attempts to fundamentally challenge her practice, starting with the canvas. Choosing to abandon the traditional cotton canvas and take on the unyielding weaved fibre of traditional jute fabric and South African hessian cloth (both being a nod to agricultural labour and trade), many of Webster’s works convey an immediately recognisable tension in their make-up.
Myriad gestures occupy the frames: Scrapings, scratches, fleshy impasto swooshes, and indistinct, watery daubs. These markings can read as distressed and frustrated in some works, and futile and acquiescent in others, but always deliberate. This collective performance of gestures is purposefully difficult to look at and serves as a direct response to the labour involved in Webster’s act of painting – a grappling with the physical and conceptual work that takes place on the canvas. Offsetting this is Webster’s use of a slow-drying cold wax substrate which she describes as a ‘soft and buttery substance.’ It also holds colour brilliantly and, slapped in thick, gaudy, globules onto these tough and unforgiving canvasses, makes for a provocative and palpable body of work.
A work like Aphrodite Sky (Dash) does well to demonstrate both Webster’s process and material in this regard. Oil paints and wax appear in near-flippant increments, serving as slivers of fantasy projected onto the rough reality of a barren landscape which, in this case, is by way of stretches of unpainted jute canvas. This can be seen again in Crystal Chambers no.7, (Island and Viridian Boatsman) where a stream of dreamy, saccharine blue is improbably placed alongside groups of desiccated palm trees in black. In Crystal Chambers no. 6 (Mountain Dance) similar tactics are employed, this time with the thin, guiding lines of a camera grid (or the tiled interface of an Instagram account). Frenetic scratches, brittle wax markings, and soft oils occupy the abstract mountain-top scene, all restlessly contained in a seemingly perfect square.
It is through this fantastic collision and subsequent cohabitation of motion and material that Webster challenges ideas of beauty, perception, intention and more. What kind of fantasy and artifice do we readily project onto the landscapes, people, and objects around us, both historically and in the contemporary world? How has digitality factored into our ways of engaging with the world? The eager and haphazard pangs of colour and motion merged with the “stubborn emergence of surface” that Webster excavates in these works serve various functions. They are at once the striking, doctored Instagram image and the blank photo grid that lies beneath, the viral post and the glitch in the algorithm, the idyllic landscape and the obstinate history it contains. It is the reality and the fantasy held in a single frame.