Patrick Webb on Bodies, Desire, and Punchinello
The scenes created by American narrative painter Patrick Webb (b.1955) capture an atmospheric, gauzy version of reality that bends social dichotomies–between the individual and the collective, self and Other, lovely and absurd, hegemonic and queer–via the theatrical Punchinello figure. Each of Webb’s fleshy bodies work in conjunction with the malleable Punchinello character to bravely construct a convincing and compelling world where desire dictates the relationship between forms–even when politically tumultuous. His paintings have earned him a Guggenheim fellowship and exhibitions around the world, among numerous other accolades. Webb paints regularly and is a tenured professor at Pratt Institute.
Coming Storm © Patrick Webb
How did you start painting?
I started fairly young, when I was about twelve. The first thing I actually did was photography, mostly because I wanted to get in the darkroom with a boy named Mitch. Then I realized I didn’t like photography much, so I began painting. The way you could sublimate a lot of things into this activity–as a 12-year-old, strange, queer boy who didn’t know who he was–it was an incredibly rewarding activity.
Night Moves © Patrick Webb
What’s your creative process?
I work on many paintings at once, sometimes for years. I like the idea of the studio as a garden in which you plant and prune things. I draw and underpaint in preparation but modify, redo, slice-up, and muddle through as I go. I believe painting is an act of the imagination no matter the source.
You once said, “I basically fell in love with him” upon encountering the figure of Punchinello in Tiepolo’s frescoes. Could you define in your own words who/what Punchinello is and what he means for you?
Punchinello is a 16th century Italian clown figure. He is repeatable; he’s disruptive; he’s performative and he excites my imagination. His identifying mask becomes a mark of queerness. He is I and not I and the Other. Rather than painting myself or an individual, part of the attraction to painting Punchinello is his expansion of the pictorial fiction as a cipher-like and yet specific figure. Punchinello is more-than-I, he can represent and comment on the social collective.
Covid- Central Park 50 X78 © Patrick Webb
Can you speak to the parallels and differences between your experiences painting during the AIDS epidemic and during the COVID-19 pandemic? While painting about HIV and AIDS, you stated, “My work became about dying”–is that true today?
In March/April of last year, I said, “My God, it’s deja vu.” But then it wasn’t. The AIDS epidemic isn’t over yet. One million people die each year from AIDS. One immediate difference was the societal response to COVID, which has been massive, while for HIV it has been filled with shaming and remains tepid. But both instances have been isolating, and in each I have buried myself in painting.
When we look at death we become more aware of our aliveness, so all my paintings are really about living and for the living, even when depicting death. I am hopeful COVID will be dampened more quickly than HIV.
Gardner Boxer Zookeeper Teacher © Patrick Webb
Can you talk about the role of queer desire, both sexual and otherwise, in your paintings?
To quote Stanley Kunitz, “What makes the engine go? Desire, desire, desire.” I think it’s true, that desire is this driving force, it’s the thing that gets us going. But queer desire threatens many. It’s often seen as Other, but is also joyful, intense, and life-affirming.
Find something that matters to you –which came from my mother. I tell my students the same and add: it’s a long road and the immersion into something is rewarding in and of itself, whether you receive accolades or not. experience, and then give us a moment of reflection outside of living in those moments.
Punchinello In Crisis_ Held © Patrick Webb
The body, offered in multitude, is itself the vehicle for your paintings’ narratives. Yet, you’ve also said you create “mind-driven” worlds. I’m wondering about that relationship between mind and body for you.
I often use the term “proprioceptive” when I’m teaching. It’s this sixth sense of your own body and the bodies around you. I love work like Venetian painting, which is so much about the physicality of people in space and in action. It’s not the idea of me sitting there looking at a cute guy or something, its more the evocation of the body that also has this weird correlation of being your own body at the same time. If it’s mind-made, you have this connection to all of the bodies in the painting, you’re trying to feel their presence in a creative, empathetic act.
South Williamsburg 54X66 © Patrick Webb
What’s the best advice you’ve received as an artist?
Find something that matters to you – which came from my mother. I tell my students the same and add: it’s a long road and the immersion into something is rewarding in and of itself, whether you receive accolades or not.
And from professors: Look at painting. Look at other painting.