REIMAGINING THE REAL
Curvy models set against the backdrop of a mushroom cloud or walking alongside African villagers fetching water, stargazing in a cup of coffee, vacuum cleaning the great Sahara desert or a child on a swing attached to the moon: little is impossible in Joe Webb’s creative universe. Having worked as a graphic designer, the 39-year-old is today known as one of Britain’s leading collage artists. Propelled by the Internet, where his work was ‘liked’ and ‘shared’ hundreds of thousands of times, the London Saatchi Gallery earlier this year hosted a solo show of his collages, while the Royal Academy exhibited a selection of his silk screens. Webb generally uses two or three images from vintage magazines or other print material to create an altogether new and surreal reality. All of his images are handmade, as Photoshop is not allowed. The artist is critical of the explosion of new technologies. “Although I now promote my art on websites, own an iPhone and use Facebook,” Webb claims on his website, “It’s confusing. I wish I had been born 100 years ago.”
Joe, to start with, could you briefly tell us where you are from, where do you currently live, and why where you live is such a great place to be?
I live in the south of England. I think I could make the collages from anywhere, but it's really useful to be near London so I have a connection with the galleries I work with.
What’s your educational background? Have you ever thought you should have done something else?
I have a BA in Fine Art which I did over 15 years ago. I never really believed after college I'd be able to make a living from art so went into web and graphic design for a while. Then I realized I was going down the wrong path and if you believe in something enough you can be anything you want to be.
You worked as a graphic designer before gaining fame as a collage artist. Some of your work seems to have a clear political undertone: the happy housewife with an Apache helicopter, for example, or the tanning model next to a woman pumping water. Message is a big word, they say, but not a dirty one in the Webb dictionary?
No, not at all. Most fine art is ambiguous and can be hard to decipher without knowing some background. I wanted my work to be more immediate and send out a clear and thought-provoking message. Hopefully it crosses over to people who don't particularly follow art, but have an interest in what’s happening in the world today. The art world tends to look down on artwork with social or political messages. It's easy to slip into clichés, so it has to be done carefully.
One recent image shows Jeff Koons' pink balloon dog set against the backdrop of what seems to be the war in Gaza or Syria. Why Koons?
That piece is mostly a comment on the massive inequality and unbalance in the world today. You have a shiny sculpture which someone has paid $58 million for in a bombed out street in Syria. It's a way of holding up a mirror on the insanity of the world we live in. Capitalism predominantly profits from wars and weapons sales. Who can afford $58 million on a sculpture? To make shitloads of money can only be achieved from unethical trading and extortion of others. It can hardly ever be 'clean' money.
Many of your other works reveal a much more romantic and beautiful universe featuring planets, clouds in blue skies, love and kisses. A call to dare to dream?
I want there to be a positive side to my work as well. It's an invitation for the user to think about the enormity of the universe and hopefully get a sense of perspective on the everyday.
How come surrealists and collage art have always got on so well together?
I guess it’s a way of subverting reality, peeling back layers and showing alternative realities within.
Name one collage artist you greatly admire? Why?
Kurt Schwitters. He pioneered collage art.
You seem not quite comfortable with all the latest technologies. “Although I now promote my art on websites, own an iPhone and use Facebook … It’s confusing, I wish I had been born 100 years ago,” you say on www.joewebbart.com. However, the 19th century saw the invention of photography. Isn't that that comparable to the technological revolutions of today? Perhaps a hundred years ago you wished you were born in 1743?
That statement was more born out of a frustration with modern day technologies, e.g. iphones, laptops, tablets, and how they are now dominating our lives. How we've all become addicted to checking our phones every five minutes. I like photography and I think I would have been very interested in it at the time.
It’s said over 200,000 images are uploaded on the Internet every 60 seconds. Is that visual overkill one reason for you to “re-imagine the real?"
The images we are bombarded with daily are rife for manipulation. Hence, we have ‘memes,’ photo-shopped images, mash-ups etc. etc. I guess that’s why there is an interest in collage again, as it’s a way of remixing these very familiar images into something else.
We were recently bombarded with the image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi. Found drowned at a Turkish beach, he apparently changed the face of the Syrian refugee crisis. Your thoughts?
It's a horrific image. There's been many more terrible images of other drowned refugees before that and the media chose to ignore them. But we have to be suspicious of anything the media put in the papers. The papers are owned by just a handful of massive corporations who decide on what the general public is fed in the news. We are manipulated on a daily basis. It’s mind control on a massive scale. The news they put out always has an ulterior motive, whether it's to sell more papers and advertising or to get public backing for yet another war.
React in one or a few words:
David Cameron? PR.
Muse? My wife.
Man on the moon? Who knows!
If tiny little issues like money, space and availability are not an issue, what three artworks would you buy tomorrow morning?
Anything by Neo Rauch, Peter Doig and Kurt Schwitters.