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Photographs with a Surrealist finish

THE Surrealists claimed as one of their precursors the poet Isidore Ducasse. One phrase of his particularly appealed. It concerned ``the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissection table.'' Such dreamlike, unplanned, and enigmatic encounters of previously unrelated objects in unexpected places provided considerable scope for artists who championed an ``undirected play of thought'' and espoused surprise or shock as essential ingredients of expression. Andr'e Breton in 1924 defined Surrealism as ``based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of association heretofore neglected....''

Today, the unique color photographs of Boyd Webb show there is still fresh juice to be squeezed from that Surrealist orange. It would not be fair, however, to label him a neo-Surrealist. For example, simply because he suspends some knitting and an old-fashioned toaster by an umbilical cord from what appears to be the hull of a spaceship exploring some distant galaxy does not make him a neo-Surrealist. Nor is he a neo-Surrealist because he pokes two telephones like periscopes through the undulant surface of sea and suggests that these odd little objects are having an animated conversation with each other courtesy of British Telecom.

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Although one keeps encountering in Webb's photographs faint echoes of the absurdity found in paintings by Magritte, or of alien space seen in Mir'o's work (``Landscape with Rooster,'' for example), the uncanny effect of his large-scale photographs is due to a number of original factors. One of these is that while many Surrealist works were much more calculated than they pretended to be, Webb's never pretend to be anything but calculated. They are canny and planned.

These images avoid any kind of trickery, unless a vivid use of disjunctions of scale is trickery. Their double meanings are clearly contrived and theatrical; their effect on the viewer is partly caused by enjoyment of the artist's ingenuity, partly by the pleasure of double meaning itself. The photograph is of a mise en sc`ene set up specially - a work of studio props and posed humans.

Webb has described his images as ``combining the concerns of the Victo-rian genre painter and the technique of the mail-order photographer.'' This statement has an element of joking in it, as do his photographs - with disarming results. Maybe he does purport to tell stories by means of tableaux vivants like the Victorians, but ``meaning'' is not arrived at by laborious, overstated depiction of some dramatic event. There are dramatic events all right, but it is their meaning that is never explicit.

Just what is that submerged swimmer doing in ``Auto Strafe,'' for example, operating a couple of primitive toy fighter planes like puppets? Are they about to machine-gun his toes, netted with other objects as a ready target? There appears to be ``real'' sky, but we know that it is really only a backdrop. Nor is the puppeteer ``swimming'' at all. He is poised precariously, as can easily be seen, on a pedestal-stool, and the surface above his head is an old piece of ocher patterned carpet. Webb uses a blue patterned carpet when he wants to suggest ocean. In ``Auto Strafe'' the planes dive over the surface of the earth.

The viewer is no less precariously poised than the subterranean ``swimmer'': He is caught between the factual and the fantastical, between what is actually photographed and the possible extension of this image into realms of the imagination.

Stuart Morgan, in his introduction to the catalog of Webb's exhibition (at the Kestner-Gesellschaft Gallery, Hannover, Germany, through Aug. 30; thereafter at museums in the United States), connects the unpretentious materials and locale of the artist's practices with the scope of his concerns: ``Beginning in a room in London his bailiwick has gradually expanded to the highest mountains, the sea-bed, deep space, the far future and the distant past. Secrets of the universe have been explored and a political theory of responsibility, not for the making but certainly for the sustenance of that universe, has been set forth. Yet ... Webb has remained in one place. Where else could he go?''

Perhaps the first thing to strike one about Webb's images is that they are very large for photographs. ``Pupa Rumba Samba'' measures 123 by 154 centimeters. Their size is a crucial part of their effect. The sky backdrops - in this case dark and stormy - suggest the expansiveness of real sky. So the green stretch of paper (?) below it has the dimensions of the curved edge of the world. The straw-covered form of the pupa, or chrysalis, is thus monumental - the very small become incredibly big. Its ``chance encounter'' (actually carefully orchestrated) is with a music stand rather than an umbrella, and ahead of them both is a sheet of music twisted into a cone like a candy bag and attached to the ``world'' like the pupa.

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Perhaps this little bag of music has alighted like a stray butterfly? Perhaps it came from a pupa? Perhaps the giant pupa is an orchestral conductor, though the music must be in its head because it is not on the stand. Perhaps pupas do contain music that can hatch out at any moment. Perhaps ...

If Boyd Webb presents guessing games by his art, they are not merely for fun. If his art seems at first accessible, it ends by being puzzling. If photography is essentially prosaic, his is wildly poetic. There are games involved, but they have a way of becoming serious - sometimes even grim; the mundane becomes the universal; and enigmatic feelings can be stirred or cut loose that, however difficult to analyze, seem, in view of the vast questioning impulses of our time, to matter quite considerably.

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