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Mark Webb's paintings in this exhibition were concerned with a postmodern vision of History. In postmodern terms History can only be a text, it can never exist in itself.1 History, if you like, is always an abstraction, a bit like Reality. Which is to say, we can only ever understand History (or Reality) by making some kind of model, a necessarily artificial model. The trouble is we then take our model to be the Truth.
The postmodern conception of History as text is an attempt to remind us not to take our model-making too seriously. That is to say we should always be prepared to look at the model again, we must be prepared to rewrite the text. There is absolutely no reason why we shouldn't do this because the "object" that is History is something which can never be fully grasped, it can never be fully conceptualised, it is always open to new perspectives, and it is always intermeshing with a continually changing present.
The list of clichéd comments about art (e.g. "The beautiful is always beautiful") which Webb used in the handout for the exhibition is a clear indicator of his concern to demolish fossilised or petrified conceptions of art - which might entail the demolition of a fossilised Art History.
In his paintings, archetypal images of Greco Roman architecture are superimposed one upon the other, or are made to fade into a misty haze, or a miasmic darkness. Such Greco-Roman images are icons of the birth, or origin, of our Great Western Civilisation. They are clichés, like the 125 clichés Webb lists in the exhibition handout. These great monuments become signs of enduring presence, symbols of an unchanging human spirit. They are shackles and chains. They bind us to a self-satisfied and reassuring vision of our "heritage" and our "destiny·.
In the postmodern view of things, there is no origin and there is no destiny. There is only constant movement. This is an invitation to change, to realise the essentially arbitrary nature of all cultural constructions, including History. It is an invitation to be creative, to always realise the essentially fictive, or mythic nature of cultural objects and their openness to rewriting.
In his paintings Webb visually deconstructs the mythic narrative of Greco-Roman origin. The Great Heritage becomes mixed up and dissolved, but what is interesting is that he does not destroy its aura. Webb's superimpositions and his dissolvings simply generate a new mythos (as is always the case), not one of Beauty, but rather one of the Sublime.2
Mark Webb, Abstract Painting (Tradition and Authority), detail, 1987
- Hayden White, “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact”. In, Tropics of Discourse. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1978, pp. 81-100.
- For a discussion of the Sublime in art see Jean-François Lyotard, “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde”, Art Forum, April 1984, pp. 36-43.