denise webber

Ultraviolet installation view - denise webber
Denise Webber, Ultraviolet,

installation view 2018


Stephen Wrentmore


Ultraviolet series (2017)
The title pieces for this exhibition are the merging of processes for Webber. The process of overdrawing the negative goes back to the roots of photography, from the first painted photographic plates to the collages of the Dadaists. The reworking of the image is also endemic throughout the history of photography, shorthanded to ‘photoshopped’ after Adobe’s image manipulation software. Webber’s modification is exposed in drawn lines of alternative bodies, and ghosts of the body of before.  In the images the body is both a canvas for nature, with images burnt by the sun onto the back, and a canvas of nature, as the flesh and its folds are revealed. This work can be seen as a reflection on aspects of exposure and the anxiety that our bodies can be ours and yet not ours at the same time. The artist grasps her own body as if to haul it into line or adjust its shape.

The work itself is made through several phases and references: “1, expose back to strong sunlight to sear or burn the representation of landscape onto the skin; 2, expose back to camera to create archive photograph of body plus landscape; 3, capture (or imprint) the image on to paper; then, 4, mark again with figure drawings onto the photograph, leaving traces of body or marking the marks.” This process takes the real and the physical, from the exposed skin, to the ephemeral, the drawing on the drawing of the photograph to make an image that intertwines both. The narrative of the work’s creation connects to the narrative in us and what it reveals as we look. Anais Nin said, “We see with the ‘I’ of the eye” and so our own story, thoughts and way of seeing are revealed in our looking.

Clay (1998)
The video Clay is based on the 19th century still photographs of Eadweard Muybridge, the pioneer photographer credited with being the first to utilise shutter speeds and chemicals fast enough to freeze motion. For Clay, Denise Webber took seldom-seen examples from Muybridge’s still studies of the human figure and edited them together, using modern film-cutting techniques to amplify tiny revelatory human moments. “The naturalness of the women interested me in particular, and it was clear that I needed to not simply animate the static bodies, producing performing dolls, but to try to reunite the consciousness with the body.”

Repetition through variation, and the painstaking (and initially destructive) restoration of space to the images are key to the success of the piece. As indeed is the reversal of Muybridge’s process, which initially captured stillness. In a sense, through Webber’s work, these 19th century people live again, they are freed from their image and reawakened.

“In revealing this and so many other barely perceptible gestures, Webber collapses the alleged objectivity of Muybridge's project more effectively and pleasurably than a hundred cultural theorists just talking about it […] Clay is, in many ways, truly liberating.”
Gilda Williams, Art Monthly

Woman drawing (2018)
There is something primal and timeless in these extraordinary images. The artist looks back at us, caught in the lights, as if we are intruders. The earliest drawings by Webber on this theme were made in the 80s, when there was a double jeopardy for women artists in terms of visibility and subject matter. In an art history adorned with the passive, prone female form, placing charcoal or a paintbrush into the naked woman’s hand is a clear statement of creative authorship, action, and power. The gesture simultaneously reclaims both the act of drawing, the body itself, and the gaze.

I see in these works (and those not shown) a connection to the ideas from Laura Mulvey’s 1975 seminal piece ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.’  Webber expands and comments through action on the ‘voyeuristic’ and ‘fetishistic’ gaze. This reversal, in the context of the period, like the work of Marina Abramovic, is testing, probing and challenging the norms of art and the artist who makes it.

Of the process Webber says, “I’ve always felt that drawing is something innate. I imagined regressing and becoming a Neanderthal woman, innocent of cultural history. I stripped the image down to just me and the paintbrush. Picking up the theme again in 2018, the idea of returning to an earlier state felt even closer to the experience of being older, knowing more and having greater freedom.”

Everywhere that is not home (2006-2014)
This series, photographed over several years of working travel, deals with the bitter-sweet anxieties of alien environments. As a freelance and travelling artist Webber’s work has taken her across the globe. In the ubiquitous blandness of international hotel rooms and airports, the artist plays. In particular, these images recall spatial experiences at the intersection between inside and out. The glass between the ‘other’ world and the ‘safety’ of the room is made more perilous by the artist in the space. The nakedness suggests a vulnerability (or is it a freedom?) but it also plays with the erotic: who is this person in the room (with us) and what is the story of the encounter?

Again we see Webber playing with the relationship between subject and observer. Whether through the unseen observer on the other side of the glass, or the implied presence of us, the observer in the room, she presents the body centre stage as the receptacle of mind and emotions. “Standing at the window was the place I was drawn to” she says, “the natural realm of the agoraphobe – gripped by indecision about whether to remain in the room or hazard a trip outside”. The glass wall then reminds one of the wall between us and the big cats, the dangerous animals that prowl back and forth, glaring out. A glimpse up by a passing stranger in Stockholm or Milan or any of the many cities these works have been made will have exposed the passer-by to that same energy, trapped in a room and bursting to get out.

Small arms (2009-2014)
A series of photographs, made over five years, of the public handling small arms at British military events. The artist refers to the series as a celebration of innocence, but also describes a feeling of psychological risk. “Up close, you’re reminded that these devices are designed for one purpose and one purpose only…  Women, girls, men and boys all engaged with the machines differently but in a wholly physical way.”

These images record the direct relationship of the body with the machine, a machine whose function is the destruction of the body.  From an early age we play, and through that play we practise roles for our future selves. In the handling of real firearms that line between the play and the imagined self with these weapons creates a tension. The conversation between playing and reality is an uncomfortable one.

“I and the people I photographed were both grappling to comprehend something”.

Webber spent her formative years in Cyprus, leaving after the outbreak of fighting following the Turkish invasion in 1974. This memory of that moment is captured in this series, the juxtaposition of youth with the weaponry of war - and the proximity of death.

“I was 16 and on the cusp of womanhood when the war broke out in Cyprus, just at a time when my heart was wide open to the future. Time stopped, and the fabric of society unravelled. I remember willing each mortar shell to fall elsewhere.”

Threshold (2015)
These images are deceptively simple. On the one hand, the photographs in Threshold are a documentary record of women visiting a Taoist building in Singapore. On the other hand, they are also documenting a moment of passage, where the faceless travellers cross from one realm to the next. The high thresholds of wood and stone that mark the entrance (and exit) to these temples require effort to cross. Visitors must lift up their legs to enter.  These thresholds (presumably designed to demarcate the sacred realm from the street) unintentionally focus awareness upon visitors’ feet, knees and legs. As these sites have evolved from temple to tourist destination, so the nature (and gender) of the legs have changed. The artist’s subtext here is one of liberation: a silent defiance of boundaries. “Years of preconditioning means a kind of phobia develops against straying into realms where you feel you have no legitimate right to enter.”  And so, over a threshold and with permission, these anonymous women’s bodies become simple metaphors for the free passage between one realm and another. One place and another. One state of being and another. The threshold becomes a metaphor for change.

Drawings (2018)
Made in charcoal on white Bristol board, Webber’s drawings frequently start life as photographs (taken by the artist) before evolving to become separate works in their own right. This process of transition is a theme within all of Webber’s work, whether it is the merging of still images to make animation in Clay, or the overdrawing on the print to make Ultraviolet. The act of drawing, like an act of meditation, allows a scrutiny and intensification of the image. At the same time, the marks upon the paper represent and are the ghosts of real-time traces of the artist’s hand and body. “I look for equal measures of clumsiness and assuredness, both in drawings and in photographs, or a meeting between the two.”

Immortality three ways (2016-2018)
The publicity image for this exhibition is an arresting picture of the artist with the skull of a young female fox resting on her body. This is a startling juxtaposition of life and death blurring the lines between the sensual and the subversive. Through the soft folds of fabric that her shoes stand upon to the bare-skinned legs that draw our eye up to the skull, the artist is creating images that are on the edge of intimacy. The series can be seen as a meditation on mortality, but also on the sensuality of flesh, bones and folds of cloth. “After I discovered that the fox skull was a young female, suddenly the object became more than simply a memento-mori. I could imagine the little vixen as a wild creature with a fierce sense of right to life and with proper feminist credentials.”

Small epiphanies (2006-2016)
These are documentary photographs taken at different times in different places, observing moments of exchange between body and mind, place and people. We see little glances of our common humanity, and the occasional absurdity. A woman embraces a relative, forgetting for a moment the bull she is handling at the end of a rope, and creates a perfect line as the bull’s neck sits over the edge of her white coat. A girl wearing knee- and elbow-protectors is caught in momentary doubts about her physical endurance, waiting in the queue for a children’s fairground ride. A girl dressed as a nymph and clutching a maypole ribbon drifts into a reverie, escaping the circumstances she finds herself in and the historic context of the maypole and the rites of May it celebrates. Finally, three girls roll up their shirts to flaunt their henna tattoos as they stride with a confident swagger through the crowd. All are moments of escape. The private in public.

Denise Webber (b1958 Leicestershire UK) is a British artist working with photography, drawing, audio and video. She spent her early years in Ammochostos (Famagusta) in Cyprus, until the outbreak of war, when she and her family were evacuated under shell bombardment on the last British convoy to leave the city in July 1974.

She studied both Fine Art and History of Art at Reading University in the UK, subsequently setting up a studio in Somerset. Moving to London she trained as an AVID film editor with the Women’s Audio-Visual Education Scheme, and started editing short broadcast dramas and documentaries for young independent directors/producers. At this time she also produced her two core video works, Clay and Weight, and became part of the creative scene around Hoxton Square in London.

She subsequently taught fine art and media production at the University of East London and what is now the London Metropolitan University. Through this time she continued to develop her creative practice and began to travel extensively internationally. This process of travel, for commissions and contracts, focussed her concentration on photography and collage, and also made her confront, as she does in her work, the sense of alienation that is forced upon us when travelling. It also inspired a body of work, some of which is in this collection, Everywhere that is not home, where Webber confronts feelings of agoraphobia creatively whilst remaining as if trapped and confined in her hotel room. In her most recent work she has reintroduced the discipline of drawing, and so her story loops and her practice develops, an ever-evolving process of discovery and expression.

Webber's work has featured in exhibitions at Tate Modern London, Moderna Museet Stockholm, Hobart Centre for the Arts Tasmania and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Melbourne. It is represented in the Arts Council Collection and the Tate Archive.