In this expanded field of cultural production that is much more of an industry of ambitions than the intuition of esthetics we might be better off inhabiting, consensus must reward those of diligence and perseverance, practitioners who prove as prolific in their studio production as they are in their ability to get their work out to a wider audience. Nothing wrong with that really, but by chance it does leave out some pretty damn good artists whose art is as difficult for them to conjure as it is for us to comprehend. Let us agree that what grabs our attention is usually at least pretty interesting in and of itself. But in doing so we might also confess, entre nous, that there is a world of ideas and images elusively on the periphery of our mainstream vision that can be hauntingly registered as distractions from the larger narrative of our culture, provocations and perversities we choose to ignore as a matter of common decency that remain with us long after we’ve chosen to look the other way.
Just because she’s once again at last ended another one of her interminable exiles into the kind of Duchampian silence that perpetually shrouds her career in enigmatic obscurity and renders those of us who can never forget her work in that frustrated despair we suspect she must enjoy, we must take this opportunity to tell you that if you do one thing while the rest of the New York art world lies dormant this summer, go check out the new paintings by Sally Webster at Bowman/Bloom Gallery over on East 7th Street, currently open only by appointment, as if the dedicated devotee alone is welcome. Since the very idea of filling an entire gallery with only her own work is simply not her style, Webster invited two others to join her -- Walter Sunday, an amazing old freak from the Bay Area who makes irascible objects of magical mystification, and Erik Foss, a young painter and collage artist in New York who I’d bet even money on being really famous one day -- please consider this less a proper exhibition review than a long overdue love letter fan-boy tribute to a singular genius who has substantially changed my life.
By way of back-story we should at least explain that many of her most ardent fans know Sally Webster primarily as the most insanely fierce singer of the most theatrically outré art-damaged primal punk band to emerge from the most decadent and deranged hellhole of music in those years, San Francisco. Aptly called The Mutants, their recordings continue to be periodically reissued for no commercially viable reason other than as sonic proof to substantiate their reckless reputation, but as none of that could possibly convey the mayhem of their concerts the curious might get a better sense of just how out there they were by checking out the many photos that they great visionary artist Bruce Conner took of them, which have inevitably entered the art world by virtue of his legendary stature. Because of an incident too gruesome to recount here, The Mutants were legally forced to break up before they attained the broader fame they were destined for, but our loss of a banshee siren so visually contrary to the ideals of pop, though tragic for music, has in time been a secret gift to the world of visual art.
Hard enough as it may be to spend ten minutes in a room with a screaming baby, the very idea that Sally Webster has passed the last two years painting three disturbingly realistic portraits of wailing infants for her exhibition is impossible to imagine -- though they do constitute a fair measure of her sadistic humor. Like her last burst of pictorial perversity some years back (images of those make-you-gag saccharine-surrogate humanoid trolls faddishly popular in some kitsch days of yore), Webster’s crying babies are a devastating combination of ultra-cute and utterly grotesque. A mother herself of a tween-age kid who we say in all affection is surely as daft as his old lady, Sally Webster has tapped into something devastatingly unsettling here, the biologically decoding dementia of a hysterical infant that unglues even the chillest of parents, which we must trust the breeders reading this will know quite well enough without any elaboration. Now we all know that the infamous photographer and filmmaker Larry Clark is one really strange guy, but that he (who has long been a great supporter of Webster) has actually bought one of these gruesome Gerbers to live with is, well, even sicker than we imagined.
In closing we should briefly mention that Webster has also chosen to preview a few of examples of a new body of work she is exploring -- wildly explosive abstractions symbolically referential enough to make you sure they are of something hypnotically part of our perceptual experience that you swear you might have seen them before (perhaps when you closed your eyes after a dangerously long night on a very bad road) -- surely the most delightful eye-candy you can imagine, as if part of her unique gift is to deliver supreme pleasures commensurate with the unholy pain. As well that reminds me to mention that among her many migratory habits as an artist, Sally Webster has joined up with a crew of four old guys, veterans of such hippie shrines as The Filmore and The Boston Tea Party, to resurrect the all subsuming sublime of the Psychedelic Light Show. Seem to remember they did a show not so long ago at Pierogi out in Brooklyn, and have no idea when they might next strike, but if they do, try to lay your hands on some toxically bad LSD as it will definitely be well worth the trip.
"Cry Baby: Erik Foss, Walter Sunday, Sally Webster," by appointment at Bowman/Bloom Gallery, 95 East 7th Street, New York, N.Y. 10009
CARLO MCCORMICK is senior editor at Paper Magazine.