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“The times, they are a changin’” Bob Dylan crooned decades ago, as he took the pulse of a nation plagued by unrest. His words were never more true than today, both here and abroad. Artists with Dylan’s kind of gift for grasping the spirit of a nation and conveying its mood feed the soul and stir the imagination. Magnum photographer Alex Webb is one of those artists and he’s in Boston now, with a veritable “greatest hits”, culled from over thirty years of examining Mexican culture from the people’s vantage point, its streets. “La Calle” will be on exhibit at Robert Klein Gallery on Newbury Street through December 23, 2016.
Alex Webb’s photographs are a lot like Dylan’s ballads, with so many artful phrases compressed into his images that they erupt with dizzying, magnetic vibrancy. They use architectural features, the joyous, rich colors of Mexico, its glaring sun and serendipitous patterns of shade to full advantage. With the immediacy of proximate people and objects, the mid-range contextualization of where they are and a distant perspective all in one shot, Webb creates fortuitous juxtapositions filled with dynamic tension. That this tautness serves as a visual cue to the underlying social climate is what endows Webb’s photographs with their remarkable poignancy and punch.
Webb’s layering of emotional melodies and discord are the undertones laced through each image. The dissonance of brightly colored shoes for sale at a curbside that overlooks a sea of slums, the frisky determination of a boy testing how high he can jump in his barren neighborhood or the mixed expressions of interest and suspicion on the faces of passersby in a winding street speak to the joys, sorrows and unconquerable spirit of a people struggling to get by. In the vivid Mexican street culture he celebrates, Webb identifies a universal message of perseverance and enduring hope.
Webb has uncovered another, more disturbing quality over some thirty years of returning to Mexico. His earlier, playful scenes are succeeded in following decades by an increasing sense of foreboding, loneliness, even desperation. It may be difficult to pick this up in the limited selection of his signature prints at Robert Klein Gallery, but I was fortunate to visit the expanded exhibit of “La Calle” on view at Aperture in NYC earlier this fall, and it impressed me there. As an example, if you look at the 1985 image of a boy spinning a ball in a blue and white plaza (above) and compare it to the desolate 2007 image of a dog waiting outside a local bar at night (below), you’ll get the idea. Webb’s sensitive tracking of the mood of the country enhances the dimensionality of his work and is easily observable in the superb monograph that accompanies the exhibit (“La Calle” (Aperture, 2016), signed copies available at the gallery). What has remained consistent throughout the changes that Webb observes over three decades is the ingenious visual and emotional poetry of his vision.
For more information about this exhibit, go to: http://www.robertkleingallery.com/
Alex Webb will be giving an artist talk at Boston University on December 15, 2016 at 7:00pm, sponsored by the Photographic Resource Center and Robert Klein Gallery. Please contact the gallery for details.
Feature Image: “Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico, 1996” (detail) by Alex Webb (courtesy of Robert Klein Gallery, Boston).