Christine Webster’s photography gets under the skin with its unsettling beauty and unnerving, direct gaze at those subjects more often left in the dark. Therapies examines the societal/historical constructs in which the (female) body exists and is viewed; ideas of powerlessness, mental and physical anguish, desolate beauty, are all threaded through this suite of images. Webster references a long history of female imagery in Western art traditions where the settings speak to the subject’s sexuality or lack thereof: consider a 15th century Madonna with white lily, book and rich robes receiving the Archangel, and the crumpled bedclothes, flower-bearing servant and knowing look of Manet’s nude ‘Olympia’.
With tacit acknowledgement of the traditions of the Romantic landscape, Webster’s English countryside recalls the subtle tones and indistinct outlines of Whistler’s Nocturnes or the veiled atmosphere of a late Turner painting. As her landscapes reveal a bleak world of bare trees, chill earth and oppressive skies, so Webster’s portraits reveal a similar bleakness of body and spirit. Therapies places the subjects in, and alongside, a landscape which “is not fecund and burgeoning with ampleness, but instead scarce, bleak and pared back to the essential dirt and mud” (1). She re-imagines the age of the crone, barren in body and pushed to the outskirts of a society driven forward by youth and beauty. Both the land and the women possess a spare beauty which is compelling in its nakedness.
The pale figure dangling upside down in Therapies 6 (viii) and the kneeling, dishevelled woman seen in Therapies 2 (i) wear their physical and mental anguish. The struggles ‘embodied’ in each woman are emphasised by the deliberate hiding of their faces – they are visible but remain unidentified. Bodies are deliberately exposed or hidden amongst layers of cloth; visual metaphors of unveiling, binding and entanglement serve to illustrate further the constraints (and restraints) within which these women operate. Therapies 8 is a portrait stripped bare and the column of the subject’s throat is offered up as either sacrifice or an act of defiance. Blooming lilacs frame the hard lines of cheekbones, nose and tendons, emphasising the strength of the body as well as its inherent vulnerability. This most exposed of poses asks who controls the narrative(s) of the image: the viewer who looks or the subject who draws the eye?
Christine Webster’s photographs, with their uneasy subject matter and lush production qualities, confront the viewer with their striking juxtapositions. Rich, textured interiors and stark, monochromatic exteriors mirror the tensions inherent in the minds and bodies of her subjects. The complex narratives of Therapies invite considered contemplation and are ones to which the viewer is drawn time and again.
1. Christine Webster, Artist’s Statement, August 2013