Friday, September 28, 2018

Timeless, Clifton Webb at the Ohr

Sometimes you need to travel to see New Orleans artists' works. The solo exhibition Icons: The Sacred Muse by Clifton Webb at the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum is the occasion to take a trip to Biloxi, Mississippi. The African-American sculptor, a pillar of the city's art scene, was a co-founder  of the Contemporary Arts Center and participated to the New Orleans Talented in Visual Arts Program as a teacher for twenty-five years. Homegrown, he graduated with a BFA and an MFA from Louisiana State University. The museum built by Frank Gehry hosts a collection of pottery from George Ohr, the "Mad Potter of Biloxi". Its gallery dedicated to African-American art is the perfect setting for the display which includes twelve sculptures and four laser prints of the artist's collages.

Inspired by his late wife, a dancer, Clifton Webb created a body of work centered on the female torso which is represented in most of the sculptures assembled for the exhibition, starting with the major piece facing the entrance. Great Mother with its hieratic pose presides over the show. Curves and breasts, symbol of femininity and nourishment, define the towering matriarch perched on a profiled female trunk for pedestal. She is crowned with a headdress fit for a queen, including a plume made of palm and wears a ceremonial cape decorated with patterns of black and white triangles with touches of red. The major piece defines the theme and style of the smaller sculptures lined up along the walls on each side. Most of them incorporate the female shape as part of semi-figurative works like Arabesque, a wood female torso upside down surmounted by a wreath made of imbricated blue-grey aluminum cones. Variations of the recurrent design (circle of cones) are also found at the bottom of Intergalactic Dancer, this time as an elaborate base supporting a light construction topped with swirls of paper. The diverse material used to build the multimedia compositions include wood, aluminum, bronze, brass, stones, plastic, sand, marble, copper, cowrie shells, steel..., and underline the skills of the artist who carves, sculpts, paints, hammers, ..., echoing the practice of African artists. Each sculpture in the round projects an aura enhanced by its title. For example,  Sankofa refers to the Asante symbol from Ghana. In Webb's version, the bird which represents the link between past and future, is replaced by a female statuette above a set of opened lips, evoking a prophetess. Mixture of religious and profane references, The Temple of  God reaches sacred undertones while Her Majesty, a construction standing on sand surmounted by a blue umbrella, brings a lighter note with its beachy attributes. The only reference to the male gender is found in Adam and Eve and Fearless Warrior. Symmetry, feature of African art, is key in Unity. Four photographs of  collages scattered along the walls energize the show with their colors and visual exuberance. Next to the wall text at the entrance, Mojo Venus sums up the myths about female power while the center piece Timeless Dancer protected by a glass case, represents the source of the artist's inspiration.

The wall text, also available on a flyer, provides a brief background about the artist and his work. In his pursuit of the "Sacred Muse" and the perfect Venus, Webb perpetuates female archetypes which may not befit current women's aspirations. However, the sculptures depict females with attributes of status and power and Eve noticeably carries her equal share of the world (represented by a heavy stone on top of the couple) with Adam. The artist reaches his goal of creating works that amplify "the royalty and sacredness of who the African American is". Without dates, the works are timeless and  could be part of an ongoing series.
Beyond the aestheticism, the sculptures engender reflection, and the contemplation of their quiet beauty brings to the recognition of the "power of art to harmonize the self with itself and with the world" (Vernon Lee).

photographs by the author

"Intergalactic Dancer"
"In the Beginning" (detail)
view of the exhibition at the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum