An imposing figure stands at the back of Dan Webb’s Georgetown studio: a rectangular column of fir, 3 feet across and 8 feet tall, out of which emerge two arms, attached at the shoulders by wooden links—all carved from the same block of wood. Aside from the uncannily realistic arms, whose gloved hands clutch a mallet and a chisel, the raw wood surface contains no other human features (though your brain tries to impose them there; is that an eye? maybe a nose?). Given the height, the shape, the material and the arms, the sculpture, called “Destroyer,” might call to mind an Ent (as in J.R.R. Tolkien’s race of tree people). But Webb calls it a self-portrait of sorts.
The sculptor says this and the other pieces in his new show (at Greg Kucera Gallery this month) reflect his longstanding interest in the process of self-invention. “We’re born with an inevitable set of traits, things that will be there forever, that make you truly you,” he says, “but what is the mechanism that allows you to change?” This question is what he calls “bedrock” in his work. The query becomes tangible in the new sculptures (all shown above) he has carved rather spectacularly from large chunks of repurposed wood. In one piece, “Loud,” an arm reaches out from its primordial hunk of maple to grasp a microphone. In another, “Rock,” a single arm rises from the origin block with its hand forming devil horns, the staple rock-concert gesture. In “Runner,” two jointed leg bones, adorned with perfectly carved lace-up sneakers, jut out from the rough maple slab whence they came.
Webb says these pieces are about the human striving toward what we desire—whether its perfection or reckless abandon—all while we’re chained to the anchor of who we are at the core. “It’s not a paradox. It’s not a bad thing,” he clarifies. “Maybe it’s a good thing.” We can form ourselves into a certain persona (be it rocker or runner), but there’s something essential about us that just won’t budge—that can’t be sculpted, smoothed and polished into a perfect simulacrum of how we hope to be. Of “Destroyer,” Webb says, “Sculpture and self-invention mirror each other.” Just as chisels slip and pieces of wood break off, he says, “There are a lot of mistakes and self-destruction on the way to self-realization.”
“These pieces are about striving toward what we desire—whether its perfection or reckless abandon—all while we’re chained to the anchor of who we are at the core.”
Born to schoolteacher parents, Webb spent most of his youth in Anchorage. He landed in Seattle in 1987 and attended Cornish College of the Arts, where he earned a B.F.A. in 1991 and met other Seattle artists he counts as inspiring, including sculptor Ed Wicklander and ceramist Jeffry Mitchell. Webb didn’t begin carving until his last year at Cornish, but even his early work reveals his tremendous skill in the medium—a wooden trophy cup that reads “Great Effort” (a double entendre); a ladder crafted of flimsy balsawood. His sense of humor is palpable in much of the work, though it’s also tinged with darkness and the feeling that death is lurking just around the corner.
In 2004, when his brother was diagnosed with a brain tumor, Webb turned to carving as almost a form of meditation. “All I wanted to do was carve,” he recalls. He needed the slowness, the concentration required, talking to himself alone in the shop. “By the time he died, I had made a bunch of work,” Webb says. “That’s when I finally felt like I knew what I was doing.” Perhaps the most arresting work from this period is called “Little Cuts.” The piece is displayed as a series of photographs, a sort of time-lapse documentation of a bust being carved from wood. The block becomes a recognizable head, and then, with more cuts, the face and hair and features fall away to reveal a skull. With even more cuts, the skull shrinks to a sliver. The sawdust remains are displayed in a plexiglass box, like an urn.
Webb has work in the permanent collection of the Seattle Art Museum, and in May, he was shortlisted for The Stranger’s Genius Award (winners to be announced September 22). But despite this and many other confirmations of his status as an artist, he says, “I have the most traditional job of anyone I know.” Married to an organic farmer, Sarah Dublin, with whom he has two kids, ages 6 and 8, Webb gets up, goes to the studio and puts in a regular work day every day of the week. “The only thing I know how to do is make things that are cool,” he explains. “It’s my job. It’s a business. You have to be pragmatic.” He also knows he’s working under a major deadline, one that’s reflected in his art. “All my figurative work is about mortality,” he says. “It’s about getting your shit together, because there’s a deadline. That’s everybody’s primary job.”
That said, Webb has no intention of imposing a lesson with his work. “There’s something miraculous about carving. I don’t want it to be like homework,” he says. “You can have a discussion about it afterward, but when you first see it, I want my work to melt your face.”