Fragile Fortress: The Art of Dan Webb

Dan Webb, Splash, 2006. Carved fir, varnish 33 x 15 x 13 in. Collection of Jennifer and Christopher Roberts. Photo: Arthur Aubrey

Dan Webb, Splash, 2006. Carved fir, varnish 33 x 15 x 13 in. Collection of Jennifer and Christopher Roberts. Photo: Arthur Aubrey

A self-taught carver, Webb’s work straddles conceptual art and the hands-on practice of make-manship. But perhaps trying to locate the dividing line between the two is irrelevant. Fragile Fortress: The Art of Dan Webb is the Seattle artist’s first-ever solo museum exhibition. It presents a broad swathe of work that ranges from a faux suit of armor constructed of duct tape to realistically carved arms and legs that are miraculously born from massive beams of raw wood.

Sculpture Dan Webb

Dan Webb, I Love You, 2006. Carved fir, ribbon, steel 20 x 15 x 9 in. Collection of Cathy and Michael Casteel Photo: Dan Webb.

All-too-aware of the “wowie” factor of carving, Webb intentionally uses trompe l’oeil  effects that grab viewers’ attention. Then he pushes beyond. I Love You (2006) depicts a realistically carved Mylar balloon. It seems to float hanging against the museum wall, while a forlorn ribbon trails to the floor. Webb brings our attention to the irony between the relatively “heavy” sentiment of love, and our helium-lite manner of expressing it. Even if viewers were initially seduced by wanting to know how he did it, they’ll want to stick around to find out why he did it.

Fortress (2009) from which the title of the exhibit is borrowed depicts two kids huddling beneath a blanket, the underside of their perfectly represented sneakers peeking from beneath their ready-made hidey-hole. “How much of a fortress can that really be?” asks Webb. Crafted of wood, his immaculately draped blanket becomes an impenetrable armor. “I see a lot of the things I do as being very vulnerable and very emotionally fragile,” Webb writes. “But at the same time the material is definitely not.”

Sleeper (2010) is nothing more nothing less than a pillow, and one of its many attractions is its familiarity and the unspoken promise of its sleepy-time solace. Simultaneously present and absent, the subject in Sleeper is only apparent through the imprint of an invisible head. Is Webb representing a recent departure from the realms of sleep, or is he representing that state of sleep itself?

Sculpture Dan Webb

Dan Webb, Sleeper, 2010. Carved fir 11 x 28 x 22 in. Collection of Helen and Sheldron Seplowitz. Photo: Dan Webb.

The few people that actually appear in Webb’s work often do so in fragments—via a single arm or leg. His subjects exist even as they make a bid to disappear. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Destroyer (2012). Emerging from a slab of raw wood two gloved hands hold the carver’s namesake tools of the trade: a mallet and chisel. Disembodied, they toil away in an attempt to disengage themselves from the very matter that gave birth to them. For one split second Webb has captured creation and destruction seemingly entwined. Wow. Visual tour de force? Absolutely.  But it’s anything but sleight of hand.

By Suzanne Beal

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