Mark Doty, from Punchinello Goes West, 1996
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 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, un which we primp our bodies in a hopeless attempt to stave off mortality. But Webb is less interested in 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
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 daze, 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
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
Mikhail Bakhtin, from Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics
Hans-Georg Gadamer, Aesthetics and Hermeneutics