Jessica Webster is a Joburg-based painter and writer. Born in the Free State in 1981, she is fascinated by the disjunctures and elisions manifested in interpretation of South African society and artistic identity through a Western discursive framework. Her second solo exhibition, Wisteria, showed to critical acclaim at Goodman Gallery Cape Town in May this year. In 2006, Webster survived an act of extreme violence in a shooting that left her paralysed from the waist down. Her practice has since evolved, guided by a heightened sensitivity to painful but moving life experiences that can impair but also empower, by offering an alternative perspective on the everyday. In 2015, Webster was awarded the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust as well as the Mellon Postgraduate Mentoring Programme award for her work in painting and academia. Her work is in private and public collections, such as the Johannesburg Art Gallery and MTN Collections.
Creative Feel: Tell us a bit more about yourself and your own art.
Jessica Webster: I am a dyed-in-the-wool painter forever, but it has also been an intellectual focus since my undergraduate days at Michaelis (2005), and I have just submitted my PhD in philosophy on painting (Wits 2017). So I see myself as a producer and an observer of painting. To me, painting has an existential thrust, a core sense of something elemental about what it means to be human. It is not based on style – any painting can convey this intrinsic and enigmatic particle, even if it deals with comical subject-matter. The foundation of my own practice is to try and create these moments that arise from a deeply critical view of my life experience, and project it onto the surface as visual form. Perhaps there, viewers can find the element which resonates with their own experience.
CF: What is the Emerging Painters Show and how did you get involved?
JW: The exhibition has been established by the forum at Turbine, to run during the Turbine Art Fair. While it forms part of the greater project of marketing art to a wide sphere of the population, Emerging Painters is a special showcase which introduces extraordinary talent to not only general viewers, but also the press and galleries exhibiting at the fair. I was invited by Glynis Hyslop to curate the show, after the artist Professor Karel Nel had motivated me for the position. I then decided to invite my peers Amber-Jade Geldenhuys and MC Roodt to co-curate the show with me. They have different conceptual backgrounds and come with curatorial experience. We, therefore, represent a rich and complex view of curating which ensures the diversity and integrity borne of many debates!
CF: What do you look for when selecting artists and curating?
JW: I want to make sure this show is objectively good – i.e. that it appeals to a wide range of individuals and intellectual groups. So it has been crucial to engage in discussions with each other (myself and the co-curators) that tend to start from our subjective inclinations – what we immediately and simply ‘like’ about a submitted work. This of course if where the most conflict between us arises – when you like a painting, you seem to very quickly form an emotional attachment to it. But the discussion/debate is also buttressed by our critical judgment of a factor that an artist’s work presents: importantly, we ask whether the artist demonstrates that they are committed to their practice. This commitment can be evident in whether they have been showing in group and solo shows. However, commitment can also be seen in the level of consistency the artist demonstrates across a body of work: that they show focus in how they approach surface, that they are specific about their mark-making. The work should also present an element that most of us can conceivably relate to. This shows that the artist is thinking deeply about their ‘self’ in relation to others, and is, therefore, a cerebral and potentially interesting activity.
CF: Is there a particular theme?
JW: We have called the show ‘touch’. This does not present a theme that is controlled by a particular narrative – the work can be about any subject. Rather, ‘touch’ is about paintings which emphasise surface quality and texture in which the meaning of the work is made. For example, thick layers of paint may heighten a sense of the psycho-somatic, or, painting in ultra-thin layers can provoke an experience of the ethereal. Alternatively, painting in hyper-realistic ways can capture the visual textures of objects and figures. In sum, we want the show to evoke a deep impression of sensuality in material methods of painting. Related to this is that ‘touch’ opposes the sign you normally see in galleries and museums, which is ‘Don’t touch’! We don’t take this to mean that viewers can literally touch the work: rather, viewers can become immersed in how the artists have created a tactile experience of the materials on canvas, and the way in which this may provoke a physical and emotional sensation in you.
CF: What would you like visitors to take from the project this year?
JW: That painting offers two gifts. Firstly, you don’t have to be educated in the arts to recognise and enjoy good painting. It is an open form of finding meaning that is available to everyone. Secondly, it is also very much a mental exercise: because it is subjective, the viewer can engage in a multitude of aspects that create meaning for them. If you are a new viewer or collector, a painting may appeal to you because it reminds you of certain memories or experiences. If you are an academic, you may choose to think about how a painting interprets certain political and social themes. The choice of either, and of both, is a motivation for viewers to keep on attending events where painting can be found.
CF: What role does a platform like this play in developing future successful artists?
JW: The key thing is that artists are offered opportunities and funding to keep on creating work. Painting is an expensive activity, so it is essential that they have reason to carry on and make the sacrifices painting requires. We want new and experienced collectors to invest in the works. This is so that our developing artists can practically afford to keep on making work: this is an important part of how society supports the arts. But also, this platform is where galleries that are exhibiting at the fair can take notice of the artists that are making their way. If a gallery selects an artist for their stable, this means that the artist will have an infrastructure to work within, and be given goals to work towards: whether towards a group show or solo show. Further, the platform is where the media can begin publicising an artist – once an artist starts becoming well-known in South Africa and abroad, they will be given a lot of opportunities and funding to keep on creating work.