Surreal yet simultaneously grounded in reality, Joe Webb’s collages piece together juxtaposing imagery to create new meanings and sharp observations on the world today. His witty visual combinations are playful, striking, and bizarre, seeing family scenes paired with images of destruction and war, while hand blenders mix up clouds and dolphins swim in bowls, creating artwork that is multilayered; humorous and delightful, but also examining key global issues, from war to global warming.
What comes first: an idea that you want to express or the images you piece together in your collages?
I’ll have a general idea of something I want to say, but if I can’t find the imagery to say that, then it’s not always possible. Usually I find an image that triggers the idea. But sometimes I can’t find an image that matches another one that easily; it could take up to a year or two to find one that works and gets the idea across.
Do the combinations of images in your work come naturally or are they carefully curated?
There’s an element of chance that images work together, and I have to find images that express an idea or humour or a narrative. When combining the images a story seems to come out, I’m not quite sure how it happens. I could be in town somewhere, like a second hand shop, and find an image that I know would work really well with something I’ve got at home, so it’s almost like fate finding something that works.
How do you imagine people think and feel when they look at your work?
What I’m trying to do is communicate ideas and hold a mirror to the events that are happening in the world by cutting things out of their context and putting them in another environment to highlight what an unusual situation it is. I hope that people come away with something to think about.
How do you strike the balance between your surreal style against the realistic approach to addressing real world issues?
When I look at issues that are bleak and harsh, like war and global warming, it’s got to be a way of making that accessible for people so it’s not just completely bleak. I find taking that 50’s look or adding some humour can make them more palatable for people to deal with. They can laugh or enjoy the colours and image as a pop, striking image, and then they can start to see the ideas behind it that are more serious and thought-provoking. There are multilayered levels that people can enjoy the work on.
On that topic – is using surrealism to define your style a conscious or subconscious process?
I’m just drawn to that style. It’s something I naturally do, so maybe it is a subconscious thing.
So that has always come naturally – you didn’t struggle to find the particular style you wanted to work in?
I’ve only been doing this sort of work in the last seven to eight years. Before, I studied painting and printmaking and did a Fine Art course. I couldn’t find the particular style I wanted to work in. This was something I tried and it was fun and interesting. I took all these pieces of printed media and cut them up, putting them together and just seeing what happened, it’s playful. It was quite a relief after trying to paint really meticulous paintings. I could let all that go and just take printed material and reinvent it, mash it up into something else, which was one of the those moments when you realise you’re onto something. But it had taken fifteen years to get there.
You’ve explored subjects such as war, famine and global warming in your work – how do you approach tackling these heavy issues?
My work is about whatever is on my mind that week or month. Recently, I’ve done quite a bit of work about Syria. There was a lot of imagery going around the internet of how it looked before it was bombed and how it looks now, with cities completely devastated. So I made an artwork reflecting that, of somebody holding up a pair of sunglasses. You can see through them to how it was before and around them you can see what it’s like now. So it depends on the subject, what’s relevant at the time, what’s bothering me, and what I feel like needs to be said.
Do you feel a responsibility to use your art to raise awareness of these problems?
I make it for myself, but I also want people to think outside of their bubble, their own little safe world, and have another perspective. We’re so bombarded with news that we tend to just let it wash over us. It’s almost like we’re not bothered anymore, we’re desensitised because it’s just so in your face. But if you’re not reading the news or if you’re not looking online for alternative news then you’re not really aware of a lot of stuff that’s going on. I feel like art is often escapism for people, it’s a nice picture, but it’s not really about anything in particular and isn’t connected with the realities of today’s world. So I wanted to say something about the world we live in, and for my art to be a visual language that people can look at and understand what’s being said without having an essay to read. It can just be said in an image.
Is visual art capable of inciting change in the world?
I don’t think it can just make a change on its own, but it can make a change in people’s outlook. It could change their habits or how they live their life or how they think about other people. I think collectively, if there was more political art, and it is starting to become that way, it could affect change in people’s attitudes.
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