March 05, 2014
Dan Webb, Destroyer, Creator
: Dan Webb, "Destroyer" detail; carved fir, 99" x 35" x 23", 2012.
: Dan Webb, "Destroyer"; carved fir, 99" x 35" x 23", 2012.
: Dan Webb, "Woodylion"; carved redwood, 32" x 14" x 11", 2008.
: Dan Webb, "Cut, Flamed, Spalted"; carved maple,18" x 37" x 33", 2013.
: Dan Webb installation, "Little Cuts" — "40 photographs that show the carving of a block of wood, from nothing, to a young man, to an old man, to a dead man, and then to complete disintegration"; dimensions variable, ink jet prints, plexiglas, sawdust, 2006.
: Dan Webb installation, detail, "Little Cuts"; dimensions variable, ink jet prints, plexiglas, sawdust, 2006.
: Unfinished obelisk in the ancient quarry at Aswan, Egypt. Wikicommons license. Photo by Olaf Tausch.
: Paleolithic carvings: "Lion-Headed Man," the "Venus of Lespugne" and the "Venus of Willendorf"; Wikicommons license.
: Marcel Duchamp, official reproductions of three readymades at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; (l to r) "Bicycle Wheel" (1915), "Bottle Rack" (1914) and "Fountain" (1917). Photo by Unknown - Wiki "fair use".
A 1991 Cornish alumnus gains his first museum solo exhibition, offering a chance for reassessment as Fragile Fortress: The Art of Dan Webb opens at BAM.
Dan Webb is a carver. That’s how he defines himself as an artist, it’s how he strives to place himself in the art world and, most importantly, it’s simply what he does. A carver takes a matrix — a block of something — and claws form from it. It is an ancient avocation: we are still finding the work of Paleolithic carvers in caves all over the world. In the ages that followed, the carvers’ craft has been seen as temple statuary, on cathedral faces, and in museums. Lately, however, it has not been much in evidence, pushed, so it seems, to the peripheries of art practice. It is all the more important, therefore, when a carver like Dan Webb (AR ’91) is the subject of a solo museum show. His work will be on display at the Bellevue Arts Museum (BAM) beginning March 7 in Fragile Fortress: The Art of Dan Webb.
The carvers of this world are a distinct subset of the category “sculptors.” They have not been the stars of the art world for a long time, with the occasional exception of artists such as England’s Emily Young. It is a particularly physical form of art creation, to chip away at wood or stone, and the physicality is an important part of the practice. “I try to find a place where I can be still in myself and embrace it and say, this is what humans are …” Young recently told John Walsh of The Independent. Young sees herself as something of a steward of history with her work, the creator of a connection to the distant past; Dan Webb, on the other hand, sees himself as a destroyer. In fact, a seminal piece of his is titled Destroyer (2012), as was a recent gallery show at Greg Kucera Gallery. Destroyer is a formed from an enormous block of rough-cut fir, over eight-feet tall, with two arms dangling at its sides holding a chisel and a mallet, the tools of a carver.
Webb, as mainly a carver of wood, cuts away at a block of something that used to be alive, a maple tree or a fir, an act he sees as a violent act of destruction. Further, he sees his carving as just one stage of the disintegration of the wood that started with the tree being cut down and will end one day with his pieces burning or rotting away. He has documented the entropic nature of his work in the remarkable installation Little Cuts (2006), a series of photos of a block of wood as he carved and re-carved until there was nothing left of it (a work wittily credited as “dimensions variable, ink jet prints, plexiglas, sawdust”). The importance of the origins of his forms has led him to include, in many cases, remnants of the original block. In these pieces, such as Cut, Flamed, Spalted (2013), the finished carving and the original block are left joined together, the gash that furnished the finished arm is clearly discernable in the block. The effect is startling and evocative, reminding the viewer of unfinished obelisks and moai laying half-hewn in ancient quarries.
Many sculptures on public view are not produced by their artists. “I’ve been asked by curators why I carve when I could just have the work fabricated,” says Webb. That Dan Webb should be asked such a question may come as a surprise to many. Nowadays it is the norm for a sculptor to hire a fabricator to make the actual object; Jonathan Borofsky’s Hammering Man, given pride of place before the Seattle Art Museum and in nine other cities, is an example of this. Dan Webb comes from absolutely the opposite direction, an artist wedded to his workshop, his tools, and his craft.
It is worthwhile to note the broad context of Fragile Fortress: The Art of Dan Webb. The opening coincides with the 100-year anniversary of that high-water mark of the modernist aesthetic, Marcel Duchamp’s first ready-made or “found object,” The Bottle Rack of 1914. Duchamp, who had flirted with cubism with an actual painting only two years earlier with Nude Descending a Staircase, followed The Bottle Rack over the next years by more ready-mades, topped by the sensational, infamous Fountain (1917), a plumbing-store urinal propped on a plinth and pseudo-signed by the artist “R.Mutt.” Duchamp had succeeded in separating the concept of art-making from the fabrication of it.
Webb thinks in such broad terms. A trait he shares with many in the Cornish community is deep intellectual engagement in his practice. Perhaps this is partially driven by external forces. He says he had to go against the modernist grain — so to speak — to muster the courage to begin carving in his last year at Cornish. Too, he says he has been challenged time and again by curators, critics and others on his adherence to the creation of physical objects. In an essay on his website well worth the reading, Webb defends his work. Understanding that carving is viewed as a retrograde form in modernist thinking, he counters that it should be re-evaluated in the “post-modern” age. “[C]arving, as an obvious outsider to contemporary practice, seems to remind us that the parameters of how we judge art today remain attuned to modernism.” His point is that, in theory, a truly post-modern tent should be a big one, with room for a wide range of work (including, of course, the works of modernism).
Many find Dan Webb’s pieces witty and lighthearted. He gets it, but thinks it’s ironic. His advisor at Cornish was sculptor Jeffry Mitchell, who was featured not too long ago at the Henry Art Museum, who hears that about his work, too. “I think for both Jeff and I, we’re glad people see that in our work,” says Webb, “because our work is about death and it’s about entropy, things that are not necessarily downers, but things that are part of the equation.”
Fragile Fortress: The Art of Dan Webb at the Bellevue Arts Museum, March 7 - June 15, 2014. Across the lake on 510 Bellevue Way NE, Bellevue, WA 98004. Hours: Tuesday - Sunday: 11am - 6pm.
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