Perhaps ironically for an artist who is known for shunning digital techniques in his work, collage artist Joe Webb has a pretty large digital footprint. Many of his works have gone viral on the Internet, shared hundreds of thousands of times across Twitter and Instagram.
Still, there is something satisfying about seeing them in person, standing in the middle of the gallery floor with the artist at Jealous in Shoreditch. As the last remnants of the setup process are cleared away and the gallery begins to look as it will on opening night, I ask Joe what it is that draws him to collage as a medium.
‘Well, it’s kind of the immediacy of it,’ he responds. ‘I can just come up with ideas really quickly and get them down and made. The nature of collage – it’s very graphic, and it’s very photographic, and it just feels like it’s the most political of all the mediums, you know?’
Politics certainly comes through in many of the pieces on display in ‘Dark Matters’. The first image one encounters on the way into the gallery is an original on the left-hand wall. It depicts a well-dressed group in glossy technicolour having a dinner party, oblivious to the black and white scene of war and destruction onto which their party has been superimposed.
The image is both funny and jarring – a good example of Webb’s use of collage as a medium. It’s been said that humour is what happens when our expectations are subverted, our instinctive associations broken and remade. A man walks into a bar – owch. If this is the case, then Webb’s work demonstrates collage’s aptitude for creating humour through unexpected visual juxtapositions. He persistently challenges the viewer’s perspective, foregrounding the absurd incongruities in our society that are often rendered invisible.
‘It’s kind of like trying to educate people about things,’ he says. ‘You know – there’s war-zones just a few thousand miles away and yet we’re living this comfortable life here, but it’s actually on our doorstep. That’s kind of what I’m doing with the work.’
The largest piece on display in the gallery is also politically-charged: a large canvas dominating the back wall, painted radioactive orange and depicting a black and white warplane dropping sweets like missiles in a diagonal line. It is this piece that Joe points to when I ask him to locate a favourite piece in the exhibition.
[Collage] is a way of dealing with serious issues but in a palatable format
‘I do like the aeroplane and the sweets,’ he says. ‘It just kind of encapsulates all the ideas that are typical in my work. It’s got that political edge – things about war, how war affects children… But it’s also a fun pop print. It’s a way of dealing with serious issues but, you know, in a sort of palatable format, so it’s not too bleak but it’s dealing with serious subjects.’
This sense of humorous and jarring incongruity makes for a surreal viewing experience. In each piece that makes up the ‘Dark Matters’ exhibition, the clash of meanings between the component images seems to almost deny itself by how improbably well they all fit together.
Webb doesn’t use computer images or Photoshop in his work – all of his collages use only two or three elements, taken exactly as he finds them in the stacks of vintage magazines from which they’re cut. The result is a sense of spontaneity, of unbelievable luck to the way these images work together. Indeed, ‘luck’ is a word that both Louise Fitzjohn, the gallery director, and Joe himself use to describe the magic of ‘Dark Matter’ – the works seem somehow both unnatural, and irresistibly ‘meant to be’.
But Webb’s play with perspective in his work does not stop at the political. Throughout the exhibition, images of galaxies and star formations stare out at the viewer – from the emptied shapes of men being grasped by their lovers, to the cut-out face of a model who cradles her own face like a mask in her hands. One can read this as optimistic – or ominous. Do the galaxies represent impossibility, or infinite potentiality? The unattainable, or the romantic? It’s all a case of perspective, of questioning your own expectations. What do you want? What do you expect?
The result is a show that offers a huge amount to the imagination, presenting images that are not only beautiful, but everything from funny to eerie to bleak, and many combinations in between.
Explore ‘Dark Matters’ for yourself at Jealous East until 29th October, starting with the private viewing tonight from 6.30 – 8.30pm.
Connect with Joe Webb: