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Tongue-in-Cheek Eloquence: Dan Webb
by Suzanne Beal


At a 2006 solo exhibition at Howard House, Seattle artist Dan Webb displayed a carved wooden balloon in the form of a heart. I Love You solidly captures the buoyancy of a helium balloon while hinting at its brief life expectancy: like people, balloons and their sentiments expire. The title of Webb’s show, “Never Always,” may have been inspired by personal events, namely the death of his brother, but the underlying ideas push beyond individual concerns to reflect a fascination with temporality as it relates to sculpture, sentiment, and human life.
The Voice (1999) also arrests time. Carved from a single piece of fir, it represents a hairless skull with a perfect gaping hole for a mouth, offset by bulbous eyes, ears, and nose. While the title loosely references the idea of mass communication or speaking out, the work physically resembles a silent rubber toy known as Bug Out Bob, whose facial features comically and dramatically distend when squeezed. Webb intentionally included a portion of rotten wood at the level of the figure’s vocal chords, negating any sense of imaginary sound. The Voice’s gaping mouth emits a mute yet perpetual squall, memorialized and held fast at the moment of emission. Silence has been rendered eternal.
Webb has received widespread recognition in the Northwest since graduating from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle in 1991. In 1995, he was awarded a Betty Bowen Recognition Award; in 1999, he received a Pollock-Krasner Award, followed by the Betty Bowen Memorial Award in 2003. The following year, he was awarded the Artists Trust/Washington State Arts Commission Fellowship. His early work frequently used materials as tongue-in-cheek commentary on the desire for invincibility and the failure to achieve it. Peacemaker, inspired by a Western-style revolver, is carved out of balsa, a soft wood technically considered a hardwood. The suit of armor in Mr. Fixit was crafted from duct tape, a supple material nevertheless strong enough for military use.
When Webb was nine, his father moved the family from Washington State to Savoonga, Alaska, an Eskimo village on an island in the Bering Sea. There were few links to the outside world, and in 1974, television had yet to arrive. To this day, the majority of natives subsist on hunting walrus, seals, and bowhead whales. Webb witnessed carving, as well as other forms of creative expression such as dance and music-making, as a means of transferring knowledge of events and cementing community bonds. The Pacific Northwest shares Alaska’s long history of carving, and Webb’s recent work references these influences. Head Stacker (2008) strongly resembles a totem pole, with 27 multi-hued heads precariously piled on the shoulders of a figure who attempts to hold them in balance. Traditional totems told stories, each figure conveying significant symbolic value, be it personal or political, for tribal audiences. In Head Stacker, the figures represented by the heads might be erudite, like Thomas Jefferson, or rudimentary, like the Muppet, but within the context of Webb’s sculpture, they manage cultural equity, blurring the line between high and low, between art and anthropology. Webb works similar magic with most of his chosen objects, borrowing from the realms of the overlooked or ill-considered and playfully jabbing at the conventions of art. In Shiny Dandelion (2008), a lowly wildflower cast in bronze dwarfs the squat white pedestal from which it emerges. Its vigorous roots grow out from the foot of the base, tilting it ever so slightly while literally and physically upending the idea that a pedestal should hold something more significant than mere weeds.

Mr. Fixit, 2001.
Duct tape and paper, 70 x 25 x 12 in.


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