An Ode to Wild America – Abstract Paintings by Martin Webb

You’re the Place, 2020 mixed media on panel, copyright Martin Webb

Martin Webb’s paintings are an ode to wild America, featuring old boats, scattered log piles and rusty shacks in stark, moonlit forests. Hovering somewhere between realism and abstraction, Webb captures the distilled essence of this spirit deftly with crude slabs of earthy colour and scratched, worn down surfaces that recall the rich patinas of damp wood, grubby metal and leaden skies. But Webb also pays homage to the romantic wanderer with abandoned houses, boats and tents that suggest squatters, outlaws, nomads and free spirits. Sometimes shadowy figures or animal silhouettes appear, but they are spectral, ghostly outlines, anonymous passers-by rather than permanent residents.

I Saw Above Me, 2013, mixed media on panel, image via Artist a Day, copyright Martin Webb

The sombre, half-toned painting I Saw Above Me, 2013 was created for the exhibition Made for You and Me at The Compound Gallery in Oakland, CA in 2013. In each painting Webb began by writing out onto the blank wood panel the lyrics to American folk singer Woody Guthrie’s iconic ballad This Land is Your Land, before gradually working over the words in paint. Guthrie’s heartfelt song about the free land of America gave Webb a solid foundation to begin working, as he explains, “Having the lyrics there provided a sort of directional compass while making the paintings, since the tone of the song articulated the tone in the paintings I was aiming for so well.” The silent, moonlit hut in I Saw Above Me seems to be straight out of the American outback, while traces of Guthrie’s words are just about visible somewhere between the moon and the trees, as if floating like music in the air.

Randsburg, 2015, mixed media on panel, image via East Bay Express, copyright Martin Webb

Still, sombre and slightly eerie night-time scenes also feature in Webb’s ‘Nightwalking’ series made between 2015 and 2018. Based on gold mining towns and settler’s cabins of the Eastern Sierras seen at night, they capture once inhabited places that are now completely desolate. Old fashioned cabins feature prominently as a ghostly trace of long-gone human presence, as seen in Ransburg, 2015, which Webb calls “a record of people having been there and passed onward.” Chopped logs, reduced into stacked strips of textured colour like those in the more abstract and simplified Reward, 2015, also suggest people once tried to cultivate this and. But as Webb observes, all-powerful nature dissolves these fleeting signs of life through the natural processes of entropy. “The natural landscape has shown people their folly,” he writes, “thrown them out and is now reclaiming the flimsy buildings back into itself.”

Reward, 2015, mixed media on panel, image via Saatchi Art, copyright Martin Webb

Many of Webb’s more recent paintings have become increasingly abstract and textural, such as Not for Nought, 2019-20, which captures moving boats as a series of sheer and solid overlapping layers, while scattered strips are sailboat poles swaying in the breeze. In the background sanded, worn down white shimmers with the fluidity of water, another powerful metaphor for the transience of human life.

The Right Time 4, 2019, mixed media on panel, copyright Martin Webb

Homecoming, 2019, mixed media on panel, copyright Martin Webb