Honey, how you thrill me

Honey, how you thrill me

"Wild Honey" Exhibition by Ben Webb

Gallery De Novo, 101 Stuart Street
18 May onwards

Odd curlicues, elongated vines, mysterious coiling shapes emerging out of the darkness, splatters and drips and all sorts of misted forms presented through a matte and muted colour palette… Ben Webb's exhibition is a peculiar combination of beautiful and creepy. I can't decide which feeling dominates, but there's something powerfully compelling about these portraits of what I call “nature-but-not”. What I mean is that, sure, Webb's artworks depict various plants and flowers and so on, but there’s much more than that going on here (isn't there always? "Overanalyser" should be every art writer's middle name).

Webb's process of layering various textures and mediums over a base picture, generally a photograph, creates both a literal depth and an intellectual depth that leaves ample room for subjective interpretations of his work – a Rorschach inkblot painting, if you will. I asked a friend to make sense of what was ostensibly a portrait of an unusual rose-coloured flower. She took one look at it and pronounced it to be "vaguely sexual". Not having a clue what she was banging (pun fully intended) on about, I remembered that said friend generally finds everything to be vaguely or explicitly sexual. But in all honesty it just looked like a flower, not a Georgia O'Keeffe rip-off.

Despite the ability of Webb’s artworks to inspire such differing responses, a sense of nostalgia unites the works. This is perhaps inspired by their vintage, old-timey appearance, which is shockingly created without the aid of Instagram! Scratched surfaces, interesting marks and paper creases infuse Webb's works with history, memory, and posterity.

This look is common to all Webb’s artworks, not just the "Wild Honey" collection. It appears even more profoundly in his earlier portraits of people, which distort faces and limbs in a strange yet fascinating manner. As a self-taught artist, Webb's style is highly distinctive, and has been lauded by international art critics and writers. Webb is the youngest New Zealand artist to exhibit in a public art gallery overseas. He has perfected his craft over the last fifteen years, gaining national and international renown through exhibitions in different areas of New Zealand, Australia and Germany. In more recent years he has taken an interest in New Zealand fashion, and collaborated with designer brands such as Nom D and Carlson. His most recent collaboration featured Elza and Nellie Jenkins, Dunedin's very own Next Top Models.

While I find "Wild Honey" to be less emotionally provocative than Webb’s earlier portraits of people and figures, Webb's unmatched skill and eye for colour and detail are present in all his works. The gritty build-up of ink and watercolour on paper creates an aesthetic mess that reassures the viewer that nothing's perfect, and messiness is okay. Sometimes it’s even preferable.
This article first appeared in Issue 13, 2012.
Posted 7:40pm Sunday 27th May 2012 by Beaurey Chan.