Darkness becomes him: JSJ brings Webb out of the shadows

Readers who have driven (or biked or walked) down West Main St. recently have probably noticed the old auto mechanic’s shop across from the Blue Moon Diner has transformed into something altogether different— a space full of funky antiques and objets d’art, with a vertical garden blooming out front and Rick Easton pouring demitasses of espresso in back.

Witness the latest incarnation of John Sarah John (JSJ), a store cum design business cum cafe cum movie house cum artists’ studio cum gallery, which no doubt, will tack on a few more roles in the coming months. The brainchild of father-daughter team John and Sarah Owen, JSJ first appeared as a pop-up shop on the Downtown Mall last fall. At its current location, JSJ hosts weekly figure drawing sessions, which makes it the ideal venue for artist Ian Webb’s premiere exhibition, “July Like a Dog.”

To call Webb a purist in his approach to art making is an understatement. Working strictly from life, he doesn’t merely reject using photographs for reference; he detests the practice, writing in his artist’s statement, “The camera has led to the degradation of visual arts.” (Strong stuff in a town that just hosted a photography festival.)

Embracing techniques finessed by the old masters, Webb hand builds his canvases and grinds his own pigments using materials like rust, burnt bone, and flax.

Webb’s stance may be hard line, but his paintings are rife with diffuse edges and murky shadows. His figures' facial features are intentionally blurred (with the exception of a few drawings on paper at the back of the gallery). His subject matter also trends toward gothic, perhaps reflecting the influence of Webb’s mentor, Norwegian figural painter Odd Nerdrum.

Which is not to say Webb lacks a sense of humor. The largest piece in the JSJ show, “The Grim Steeper,” depicts a winged skeleton cloaked in lapis blue (a color often reserved for Mary’s robes in Renaissance paintings), who dangles a copper teakettle from its bony fingers. The painting’s four panels, heavily textured with built-up layers, as well as its overall dimensions, reflect the golden ratio, a proportional dictate embraced by classical architects and artists. Webb’s technique is exacting and his aesthetic impressive, but the painting seems elaborate for having a joke at its heart.

Nevertheless, Webb is an evolving talent who walks his talk with atmospheric canvases, adding yet another facet to JSJ’s ever-evolving salon.

Ian Webb’s exhibition, “July Like a Dog,” is on view through the end of the month at John Sarah John, 505 W. Main St. 989-2456.