“I distinctly remember a friend of mine who had AIDS was in the hospital with neuropathy, incredible pain in his feet. When we went to visit him, it took about a week to finally negotiate visiting him. When we finally did visit him, we were told that he had not been touched, that the doctors—and this was early on and people didn’t know about the mode of transmission—were in a hazmat suit. I remember my then partner and I rubbing his feet and the doctor and nurses screaming at us ‘don’t touch him, don’t touch him, don’t touch him.’ What we’re talking about here is that people in the greatest need are being stripped of the most basic human right: comfort. And in fact, the longstanding social and cultural elevation of doctors was in part, it seemed to me, rooted in an understanding that they are on the frontline. putting their own lives at risk to take care of others. We are seeing that today.“Patrick uses the Punchinello mask to both locate this within our cultural history—because so often age is completely othered—and to generalize the face of a person with AIDS so that it can be quite literally anybody. And he also, of course, he uses the iconography of Christian martyrology in order to root these emotions in a familiar narrative that in fact [when you consider the Christian right] worked very hard to close its eyes to what was going on all around during the AIDS crisis.”

ARTNEWS: Curator Jonathan Katz Discusses Art Related to the AIDS Crisis, April 2020

Webb’s narrative paintings, inspired by the plague that has devastated his generation, are brilliant and mordant evocations of a twentieth-century Carnival of Death. Others have broached the subject of AIDS with varying degrees of rage and despair. Webb’s conception of the doomed protagonist as a figure adapted from Tiepolo’s clownish Punchinello enables him to confront the terrible with an irony that enriches and deepens the ultimate pathos. I am moved by these paintings and admire them for their invention, craft, and complex psychic texture.

Stanley Kunitz, Patrick Webb 25 Years of Work: Paintings 1981-2006, PAAM catalog, 2006

Webb’ re-visioning of the archetypal clown reconstitute him as a friend and hero to gay men everywhere, a figure whose slight disguise — that self-revealing mask– enables him to move through a world of adventures we recognize. Those venturings of the self into realms of desire, encounter and loss. In Punchinello Goes West our hero entertains an American myth testing himself by entering the wide open spaces, the wild arena of the rodeo and the bunkhouse’s sexual dark, formally rich , full of echoes and allusion, this journey is as playful as it is poignant. Punchinello spreads his arms to tell the tall tale of his encounter with the javalinas– an in the same way , Webb has widened his embrace in this evocative renaissance meets Wild West comic strip, a narrative poem m for the eye.

Mark Doty, from Punchinello Goes West, 1996

Punchinello’s mask, the singular constant in the pictorial world of Patrick Webb, is in the form of a cock, a mask that is also a dick. Stay with that metaphor a little, and it opens up to a wide expanse of contradictory possibilities in queer life: queerness as a kind of camouflage or cover for the many other, non-sexual things we are; as an identity category that sums us up, that literally becomes our face in the eyes of others—or ourselves; as the token of a sexual universe in which we are both the object of other men’s desire, and ourselves desiring, a blessed relief from the closet in which desire always moved in one direction only, always out towards others. This dick/mask materializes the paradoxical construct we call the closet, that identity that by definition must always leak evidence of the very queerness it is intent on denying, for if it were watertight, it wouldn’t be the closet but a seamless example of the heterosexuality.

The point is that Punchinello’s mask opens up a space in which our sexuality is cleaved from the rest of what we are, and in so doing, it runs counter to the false unity we generalize as our identity. For the mask we wear that is our own queerness is at once blessedly right about us and woefully misleading. We are not the equivalent of our sexuality, even though in these times, queer sexuality is now perhaps the most salient thing about us.

Of course, the cock/mask that Webb’s Punchinello wears was not his invention, but borrowed from the Commedia dell’arte tradition. The figure of Punchinello, called Punch in English, has always worn a mask with a beaked nose, albeit that mask is nearly always black, and the nose more fully integrated into it. Made a figure of ridicule, conniving and often violent, Punch is hardly a model citizen. Rather, he’s a comic figure whose defining characteristics are both his wily ways and his general excessiveness. Punch is thus made over into an apt figuration of queerness through this fraught combination of a camouflaged, yet excessive, performance of selfhood. He is as ripe an analog to queerness as one can encounter in the Commedia dell’arte tradition.

Jonathan D. Katz, That Rare Mask that Identifies Its Wearer

Webb’s friend through all his trials–personal and professional–has been Punchinello, that odd comic/tragic character of the Commedia dell’Arte. Previously, Punchinello had made his most famous appearance in an extraordinary series of drawings by Domenico Tiepolo. Domenico turned to this figure of traveling farces and puppet shows at the end of the eighteenth century, when Italian painting seemed in final decline. Transferring the masked figure with the big nose from the the carnival to everyday situations was a way to critique contemporary mores. But it also gave Domenico an original voice separate from his famous father Giambattista. If Domenico’s Punchinello drawings often parody his father’s work and the culture from which it sprung, it is not to negate his tradition, but to try to find a way for it to go on.

Webb confronts a fin de siecle art world that even more that Domenico’s seems exhausted In Webb’s earlier pictures Punchinello — certainly the artist himself –confronted AIDS; later he went West traveling through a mythic American landscape[e of rodeos and saloon but also airport lounges and gay bars. Now Punchinello visits that most characteristic nineties setting , the health club, in which we primp our bodies in a hopeless attempt to stave off mortality. But Webb is less interested in the satirical implications of the gm than the idea of a frail male figure testing himself against the the weights of suffering and desire.

Jonathan Weinberg, Punchinello Works Out catalog, 1998

One of the major problems Webb encountered in his quest for homosexual imagery was how to formulate a convincing figure type. His blend of ironic wit and heroic grandeur demanded a male figure that was vulnerably human yet still defined or marked by a powerful, driving sexuality. The challenge was to come up with a physiognomy that, as Webb puts it, “wasn’t like a Ken doll.” The solution lay in Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo’s Punchinello frescoes in Palazzo Rezzonico in Venice, which Webb first saw in 1989.

Punchinello, a well known figure from the Commedia dell’Arte, first appeared on the Italian stage sometime in the 17th century as a servant of the hero and heroine whose frustrated courtship formed the basic plot of most productions. Like other stock characters of the improvised theater, Punchinello was masked….Punchinello’s absurd physical presence introduces a subversive, foolish note to momentous events as well as trivial activities like sawing wood or watching a dog dance. But his clownish naiveté and unabashed enthusiasm lend a tragic-comic poignancy to the mundane rhythms and rituals of everyday human existence. Punchinello remains the star of his own life– humble as it is–and endows his time on earth with a kind of heroism.

The Italian clown, with his phallic nose and dunce cap, attracted Webb instantly. He describes him as “a little like Woody Allen, a bit of a buffoon. He was particular, but also general. He could be repeated. In Punchinello, I found an Everyman who in my paintings is Everygayman”. Webb’s Punchinello was necessarily different from Tieplo’s. Slimmer, and without hump, Webb’s clown has a quieter, more reserved bearing. He moves through a Webb painting woodenly, slightly dazed, as though dimly aware of the ridiculous figure he cuts. Yet he carries on– propelled by appetite and eagerness to participate

Nancy Grimes, Punchinello Paintings catalog, 1992

Patrick Webb’s Punchinello is uncanny. No matter what adventure or trial he’s thrown into—parade, gym, rodeo, fire, brawl, the list goes on—Punchinello continues to surprise with his unique combination of strangeness and familiarity. People seem to vaguely recognize Punch, even identify with him, while at the same time not being able to understand fully his ongoing presence in Webb’s paintings. Why Punchinello? He seems to confound as much as he beguiles. Could it be that Punchinello belongs to that paradoxical realm that Sigmund Freud attempts to define, in his 1919 essay entitled “The Uncanny,” as “that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar”?

What is the uncanny? And how do we experience Punchinello as uncanny? In “Fiction and Its Phantoms,” the French writer Hélène Cixous calls Freud’s essay a “strange theoretical novel,” in which “nothing turns out less reassuring for the reader than this niggling, cautious, yet wily and interminable pursuit.” Her description parallels both Webb’s representation of Punchinello in a variety of contexts and Punchinello’s own strangely hesitant yet dogged ventures that put the self in search of self. These parallels follow a strange logic of doubling, a phenomena that Freud considers to be an intrinsic aspect of uncanniness. “The subject identifies himself with someone else,” he writes, “so that he is in doubt as to which his self is, or substitutes the extraneous self for his own. In other words, there is a doubling, dividing and interchanging of the self.”

If we allow ourselves such a substitution with Punchinello, to be caught up in his quandaries—overwhelm in the face of life’s burdens; the thrill of a secret shared; desire’s interruption of our best plans— do we not, at least for a moment, find ourselves in that uncomfortable, tragicomic space that defines Punchinello as one of us yet forever different, unique? His repetitive appearances in Webb’s paintings, always with his self-defining mask and hat, not only mark him as protagonist, and thus invite identification, they also split him from us—for better and for worse, Punchinello can never lose himself in a crowd. In fact, even Punchinello’s status as other is constantly changing. In Webb’s earliest Punchinello paintings, Punch always appeared as a phallic yet ultimately doomed gay man. More recently Punchinello has emerged as a survivor. And in this most recent manifestation of Punchinello, our protagonist has morphed to embody other kinds of otherness, including servants, a woman and a spouse.

Brian Kloppenberg from Punchinello As Other, 2010

Carnivalistic laughter likewise is directed toward something higher–toward a shift of authorities and truths, a shift of world orders. Laughter embraces both poles of change, it deals with the very process of change, with crisis itself. Combined in the act of carnival laughter are death and rebirth, negation … and affirmation…. This is a profoundly universal laughter, a laughter that contains a whole outlook on the world. Such is the specific quality of ambivalent carnival laughter.

Mikhail Bakhtin, from Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics 

The encounter with art belongs within the process of integration given to human life which stands within traditions. Indeed, it is even a question whether the special contemporaneity of the work of art does not consist precisely of this: that it stands open to limitless way to ever new integrations. The creator of the work may intend a particular public of his time, but the real being (my emphasis) of a work is what it is able to say and that this being ( Dasein?) stretches fundamentally beyond every historical confinement.

Hans-Georg Gadamer, Aesthetics and Hermeneutics