NICK WEBER PAINTS IT LIKE HE SEES IT
The essay below was written by John McWhinnie about Weber’s Broadband series. It appears in the Broadband monograph, which is available exclusively at Daniel 13.
Nick Weber’s paintings of men and woman in various stages of copulation are not for the squeamish or prude. But if you find them shocking, I suggest you look around. Weber is one of those artists one might classify as a great noticer: from night paintings to portraits to porn scenes, his work points out what most of us miss as we pass through our everyday lives. There is a point to his pointing: it might be a quiet moment of atmospheric beauty in a night painting or he may be suggesting a mood or personality in a portrait. His porn paintings are no different in approach; it is just their subject matter which makes it difficult to get beyond the visual feast to meditate on the work’s layered meanings. Weber’s porn work is part of the grotesque carnival of human activity that assaults one’s senses the moment one walks out the front door — or, for that matter, the moment one enters the home and turns on the t.v. If you are going to indict Weber’s paintings, honest portrayals of how humans carnally copulate for the profit of themselves and others, then go ahead, I can’t stop you. But then I’m going to have to make you sit and watch an entire episode of The Bachelor, American Idol, and The Hills. These shows, kissing cousins to Weber’s original porn images culled from the internet, make me shudder more than Weber’s stylish, old master twists on the oldest profession. They are the pornography of our times and make Weber’s paintings look quaint, quiet, even old fashioned in comparison.
Let’s face it, Weber’s paintings are no more pornographic than the daily dose of television, titillating advertising and internet sizzle that we are fed by a culture that serves up youth, sex and beauty as if they amounted to the same thing. And I’m not being rhetorically provocative. There’s nothing more pornographic than the excessive glut of imagery that bombards us every day, begging us to buy and brand ourselves, mark our skins and tattoo our souls with Madison Avenue’s equivalent of the flesh trade. Take it off or dress it up — sex is what we are buying in order to sell ourselves to the highest bidder. If we are lucky, that bidder is our soul mate. Even better, he or she may be able to take us on our dream vacation, whisk us away to an exclusive spa, fit us in designer clothes, and place us behind the velvet rope. If you think I’m being unromantic about love then look around at our visual world. In every magazine romance is being sold in just the same manner as Weber’s purveyors of porn sell sex. While they require their tropes — limbs askew, eyes glazed over with lust, orifices filled — romance peddlers require ample amounts of exposed skin, bodies glistening with sweat, suntan lotion, or perfume, and of course a luxury product to accompany the coded messages.
In the midst of the gluttonous world of false advertising, a world that leads us to want unachievable fit, trim, idealized bodies, idealized lovers beyond the person who shares our bed, and idealized homes cleaner than your own, Weber’s paintings are honest. They sell exactly what they represent: as a representation (a painting) of a representation (an imaged found on the internet), they lay no claim to being the real thing. In Weber’s paintings, men and woman fuck. They look like they enjoy themselves. And maybe they do. But we aren’t fooled and neither are they. It’s porn-derived and it’s not meant to be an accurate portrait of the sex lives of people who live in the Valley.
We may play the game with them and watch but no one is being taken in by the spectacle. It’s a job. And the actors don’t pretend to deliver anything other than an image of sex. They aren’t real lovers so don’t get horny looking at them and don’t get the wrong idea that anybody has sex like this. That’s the fantasy that is being sold: as fantasy, Weber’s paintings raise the artifice to a level of aesthetic perfection which makes the artifice worth looking at, not as titillating images on a screen, but on a gallery wall, or in your home. In fact, Weber’s work desexualizes the erotic punch of the original — one of porn’s main attractions (it does, after all, get most of us off) — and makes sex beautiful. At its best, it takes the porn out of the image and restores sex to the painting. So why complain? Sex should be beautiful. In porn, it isn’t. It’s not real, nobody wants to look at it for long periods of time or pay attention to how the light falls on a face as it is struck by sperm. Weber’s paintings, however, restore the beauty to one of the few things that makes us human. It asks us to notice things that we are usually fearful to look at. It requires a level of attention to a physical and spiritual rapture that all of us have experienced. We fuck as humans; as poets and artists, we rhapsodize its vexed mysteries. Weber is for the beauty and mystery, while the pornographic original is Capital making a buck. Sex is exactly what pornography kills. Thank God artists like Weber are around to remind us that our sexuality is an aesthetic thing, not merely another circuit of Capital’s exchange.
So no apologies for Weber’s part. Beyond its beauty, the work exposes how voyeuristic our society has become, and in doing so, Weber’s work takes on a decidedly political edge. These paintings confront us with the experience of our own voyeuristic relationship to everything. We like to watch. In People Magazine, we read about the rise and fall of our favorite celebrity punching bag of the moment. On television, we cheer our favorite idol and snipe at the ordeals of a survivor we love to hate. Ideally, we hide from ourselves the degree to which our voyeuristic society has shaped our desire. We suppress our role as accomplices to the system — a complicity that occurs every time we buy a product to make our lives better or settle in to watch an episode of American Idol. It’s a society that turns everything we do into a visible opportunity to sell ourselves, to market our talent, to exploit the talent of others. That’s a form of sanitized pornography and it’s a measure of the system’s success that we’ve suppressed this truth.
Naked, the bodies in Weber’s paintings don’t give a place to hide the voyeurism and maybe this is what makes viewers so uncomfortable: they want to shove themselves back between the sheets, heads beneath pillows — anything to avoid confronting the fact that you and I live in a society that markets sex in the same way it cuts down rainforest to make a Big Mac. That’s a tough truth, and the links between the two might not be immediately apparent, that is, if we stay blind to our voyeuristic complicity…but don’t blame it on Nick Weber. He’s not hiding anywhere in these paintings. It’s all there to see if you look long enough without growing uncomfortable. In his work, you’ll catch the artist simultaneously painting two subjects so fundamentally intertwined — sex as mystery and pornography as exploitation — that they are almost the American Way. And maybe that’s why you’ll judge these paintings pornographic.
A Fulbright scholar pursuing a doctorate in philosophy, John McWhinnie met Glenn Horowitz, an established rare-book dealer, at a book fair. In the late 1990s, he became manager of Glenn Horowitz Bookseller in East Hampton, New York, and began showing contemporary artists’ books and projects as John McWhinnie @ Glenn Horowitz Bookseller. The two opened a gallery bookstore on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in 2005 and published artists’ books and exhibition catalogues under the imprint JMc & GHB Editions. Among the artists they worked with are Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, Holton Rower and David Levinthal. John passed away in January, 2012. He was 43.