The strangest most beguiling show on view this month comes from Mary Hull Webster. A former critic well known to Bay Area readers, Webster is a multi-media artist whose application of hermetic practices to contemporary art making has percolated just beneath the radar of wide public notice. Her inner-directed, alchemy-influenced work includes one of the trippiest, most complex Internet art projects you’re likely to see, Looking for Lucia: A Book of Night and Day. Its dominant theme, "the global light-dark imbalance," extends to the photos, books, paintings, sculptures on view here. Made over a ten-year period, they focus on the spiritual journey of two fictional characters, Lucia and Hugo, who, judging from the text of an accompanying artist’s book, may well be stand-ins for the alter egos of Webster herself.
In that book, time, narrative viewpoints, and chronology shift so rapidly, the only persistent “fact” is the fluid nature of the artist’s self-inventions. Fittingly, the centerpiece of this show is the appropriated image of Hugo Ball, which Webster repeats across a series of altered photos that portray the Hugo/Lucia character androgynously and in conventional gender roles. For a shape-shifting artist like Webster, the character of Ball must have been irresistible.
In 1916, he launched the Dada movement in Zurich, and though his involvement lasted a mere two years, his influence continues to resonate, particularly at cultural moments when things stop making sense. That same year, he co-founded Cabaret Voltaire where, dressed in outlandish costumes, he performed “sound poetry” comprised of guttural noises and nonsense phrases designed to capture the insanity of the times. Audiences, expecting song and dance routines, were rudely awakened.
Webster first began working with Hugo/Lucia images in 2001, when she came up with the idea of using Lucia as an antidote to violence and war. “When I thought about the incoherence of it all, the only thing that came to mind was the absurdity of Dada,” she told me. By that, the artist doesn’t mean that conditions in post-9/11 America in any way rival the devastation seen in Europe after WW I – only that irrationality persists on a global scale.
In Webster’s re-casting of the performer’s image, he appears clad in his freakiest, most provocative outfit: a cubist-inspired cardboard suit, a cone-shaped hat and gloves that make his fingers look like reptilian claws. The image calls to mind hooded inquisitors, wizards, magicians, clerics, Klansmen and 16th century pilgrims. As Hugo’s partner, the Lucia character appears in and out of costume, clothed and naked and occasionally, with her face obliterated, looking as if her entire being had been atomized. The most riveting of these male/female juxtapositions appear side-by-side, in two life-sized light boxes that give the twin visages the ghostly presence of 19th century “spirit photographs”.
Elsewhere in the show, there are illuminated boxes on the floor covered with mystical symbols and rocks; a quartet of small abstract paintings; stacks of wrapped boxes; solarized landscape photos; books created by Webster and three other artists (Mary Mountcastle Eubank, Louise Pryor, Zea Morvitz); object-filled boxes (from the Portable Stories series) whose titles and contents make sharp political statements; and two wall-mounted sculptures, one of which suggests an electrocardiogram made of indecipherable hieroglyphic inscriptions.
What all this means is impossible to say. Ball himself sought nothing less than to create a language unheard of, and maybe that’s the point. As the Cabaret Voltaire co-founder wrote: "I don’t want words that other people have invented… I want my own stuff, my own rhythm, and vowels and consonants too, matching the rhythm and all my own. If this pulsation is seven yards long, I want words that are seven yards long." Webster, in this exhibit, provides plenty of visual equivalents.
–DAVID M. ROTH
Mary Hull Webster @ b. sakata garo through March 3, 2012.
Learn more about Mary Hull Webster.