Editor's note: The following introductory essay was published in the Bellevue Arts Museum catalog for the exhibition Fragile Fortress: The Art of Dan Webb, on view March 7 - June 15, 2014. The essay was published April 4, 2014 in Resource Library with permission of the Bellevue Arts Museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay or other source material, or wish to purchase a copy of the catalog, please contact Bellevue Arts Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:
Risk and Reward
By Nora Atkinson
We shape our tools and they in turn shape us.
- Marshall McLuhan
Although in broad strokes Fragile Fortress: The Art of Dan Webb has been several years in the making, the true planning for this catalogue and the exhibition it accompanies began only a year and a half ago when I had the opportunity to walk through BAM's galleries with the artist and then sit down with him face to face for the first time. I was already familiar with Webb's work, but the occasion of our meeting gave me my original glimpse into the underlying depth of his vision, which extends far beyond the work he has achieved to date.
Initially this exhibition was conceived as a mid-career survey, but it quickly became apparent to me that the final result of this investigation would be a much different creature, both for practical reasons, and also because of the artist's unique trajectory in the field: despite his significant contributions to art in the Northwest, one might argue that in some ways Dan Webb's mature work is still in its infancy, and I can only conjecture the remarkable work that is to come. To understand why I say this, one must be acquainted with just a little of Webb's history.
Though perhaps one of the most beloved artists working in the Northwest today, Dan Webb is not native to the area. Born in Michigan and growing up in Alaska, Webb first briefly attended the San Francisco Art Institute and then spent time all along the West Coast before relocating to Seattle in the late 1980s to attend Cornish College of the Arts. At odds with the pretense of San Francisco's art-school atmosphere, he found himself at home in Seattle's relaxed, vibrantly individualistic arts community, which was just coming of age in the eyes of the world through the popular rise of the grunge music scene. At Cornish, Webb found an echoing of the same ideological freedom, and through the softly guiding influence of artists such as Ed Wicklander and Jeffry Mitchell, artists who followed a more pliant set of artistic rules and for whom the conventions of art were secondary to vision, he was encouraged to follow -- and trust -- his own creative impulse. The path he chose then, at the burgeoning of his career, was a surprising one: he chose to carve.
In life, the concept of risk is seldom dissociated from at least some level of immediacy. The Hollywood mind illuminates pictures of cliff-jumping, high-stakes gambling, and volatile stocks. It fails to register the more subtle character of a daily, prolonged risk such as Webb's undertaking: the commitment to honing a skill over the course of more than a decade, and the tradeoffs that this entails. With no formal training in a technique that yields few shortcuts to success, the pursuit of this goal has been a daring exercise of learning in public, and from 1990, when Webb began carving, on into the early 2000s, his conceptual vision far surpassed his mastery and his ability to produce. During those early years, Webb sought out technical challenges within his process, forever pushing the limits of his skill, and he endured both critical successes and failures at the hands of a public unaccustomed to his unusual way of working. To make a living, Webb's carving throughout this period was largely supplemented with production in other media, including bronze, resin, rubber, marble, and duct tape. He also made forays into large-scale public work projects, which can be seen around Seattle, Bellevue, and in outlying areas.
In this respect Webb's choice could be considered risky on two distinct levels, both of which are possibly best articulated by David Pye in his book The Nature and Art of Workmanship: first, the choice to carve, to follow one's passion and invest time in the mastery of a skill, from rudimentary beginnings to professional ends; and second, the process of carving itself, which, to use Pye's term, engenders the "workmanship of risk," the series of choices made in each piece as it is being made, to produce a unique work. This process, in Pye's theory, is opposed by what he terms the "workmanship of certainty," often associated with machine production, in which choices are predetermined to achieve a particular, foreseeable outcome.
A common critique of craft as it relates to art holds that the thorough technical training and repeated formulaic gestures necessarily learned to produce fine work, especially at a level of high-paced production that allows the artist to sustain himself, lead to a lack of conceptual complexity and innovation in the field as a whole. In recent years, however, the rise of DIY (do-it-yourself), craftivism, and other movements have challenged the older assumptions of traditional craft, bringing a fresh conceptual discourse to the field, even if sometimes to the detriment of skill. While Dan Webb does not define his work under the much-maligned title of "craft," and in fact -- as you will read in this volume -- is careful not to choose sides, his work presents another direction in this discourse that is not only welcome, but essential for the vitality of the field.
Obtaining his skill as a craftsman informally through hard work, after a rigorous training in fine art and art history, Webb brings to the table a conceptual approach, but also a boundless curiosity. In the hours he spends with each piece, making decisions toward the final result, he tests his hypotheses and shifts his course to go where form, concept, and medium fluidly lead.
Thought, after all, is process, and the time it takes to complete a work in this slow, anachronistic manner affords the chance to meditate on his vision, ask questions, and challenge his own assumptions. The complexity of this mind-hand connection comes through in his work. Webb's sculptures are never one-trick ponies -- they contain layers of playfulness, humor, irony, and emotion, naïveté, and abject wonder -- many things difficult to define and even more difficult to sincerely convey. And though the materials are usually left raw and untreated, they never lack interest but invite human interaction.
It is the curator's job to look at the artist's entire body of work and whittle down to a vein of substance worth exploring. For the artist's first solo museum exhibition, Fragile Fortress: The Art of Dan Webb finds its focus in the artist's commitment to the long road of the wood carver, a hard-fought journey worthy of acknowledgment now at a pivotal juncture as he has allowed other media in his oeuvre to fall away and has begun to work almost exclusively in wood. Weighted toward work drawn from the past eight years of his practice, the exhibition celebrates the evidence of a brilliant artist now reaching his stride as a craftsman.
A play on words (of which Webb is so fond), the title, Fragile Fortress, derives in part from the name of one of Webb's most charming sculptures, pictured on the cover of this volume, which depicts children at play, all but hidden under the shelter of their blanket stronghold. It expresses grounding, but also danger, such as the artist has experienced through his career, and it reflects the often tongue-in-cheek dichotomies alive in much of his work -- flourishing in adversity, destruction in creation, humor in futility, vulnerability in protection, knowledge in ambiguity -- among many others. To walk the uncertain, relentless path Webb elected so many years ago takes fortitude, but also humility and the admission that one has much left to learn. The body of work he has built on these foundations, offering a poignant look into the human condition, is richer for it.
To return for a moment to the words of David Pye, "It is high time we separated the idea of the true amateur -- that is to say the part-time professional -- from the idea of 'do it yourself' (at its worse end) and all that is amateurish. The continuance of our culture is going to depend more and more on the true amateur, for he alone will be proof against amateurishness." Originating more than twenty years ago in the then-amateur carver, Webb's rock-and-roll spirit and his commitment to "follow the joy" has at its heart this same call-to-arms, and I hope a sliver of that vision is captured here within this publication, the first but likely not the last to highlight the important contributions Webb continues to make to the complimentary, overlapping spheres of art and craft.
My heartfelt gratitude goes out to all those who have lent their tireless support to making this exhibition and catalogue possible. I would like to extend my deepest thanks to Dan Webb for creating this stunning and inspiring body of work, for sharing his vision over the course of this project, and for his dedication to the organization of this exhibition and catalogue. It has been a pleasure to work with him.
I owe a debt of thanks to Jenni Sorkin, who with her insightful words has brought a fresh perspective to Webb's work from outside the region; to Greg Kucera and Billy Howard, who have offered me their insight from within the Northwest; to my amazing production team,
Phil Kovacevich and Sigrid Asmus; and especially to the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, who continue to show their support of Northwest artists and Bellevue Arts Museum through their generosity. Finally, I would like to thank all the lenders to this presentation, without whom this exhibition would not be possible.
1 David Pye, The Nature and Art of Workmanship (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1978; digital reissue 2010), 4ff, 79.
About the author
Nora Atkinson is Lloyd Herman Curator of Craft at Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery. She was previuosly Curator at the Bellevue Arts Museum.
About the exhibition
Seattle artist Dan Webb returns to Bellevue Arts Museum with his first museum solo exhibit, Fragile Fortress: The Art of Dan Webb, on view from March 7 through June 15, 2014. (right: Dan Webb, Splash, 2006, Carved fir, varnish, 33 x 15 x 13 inches. Collection of Jennifer and Christopher Roberts. Photo: Arthur Aubrey)
A visionary artist and superb craftsman, Webb has turned toward the unusual practice of wood carving in recent years, often at large scale. Featuring never-before-seen sculptures alongside some of the artist's most iconic pieces, the exhibition provides a survey of 15 years of intense exploration and self-invention. In his mostly figurative work, the self-taught carver explores themes such as the fragility of life and human resilience, balancing this heady content with his characteristic, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. Contrasting skillfully-chiseled carvings against rough-hewn surfaces, Webb reveals a tension between what was, what is, and what could be.
Fragile Fortress: The Art of Dan Webb continues Bellevue Arts Museum's mission of featuring Pacific Northwest artists who are having a profound impact in the field of art, craft, and design. In celebration of this survey, the Museum is releasing a catalogue honoring Webb's achievements and contribution to contemporary art. The full-color catalogue features essays by author Jenni Sorkin and the artist, as well as an interview with the artist by curator Nora Atkinson, and will be available in the Museum Store.
Born in Michigan in 1965, Webb spent most of his childhood in remote Alaska before making his way to Seattle. He received his BFA from Cornish College of the Arts in 1991 and has since won numerous awards, including the Pollock-Krasner Award (1999), the Betty Bowen Award (2003), and an Artist Trust/Washington State Arts Commission Fellowship (2004). His work is included in the permanent collections of the Seattle Art Museum, Tacoma Art Museum, and the New Museum in New York. Little Cuts, a moving meditation on his brother's diagnosis with a brain tumor and subsequent passing, was featured in Bellevue Arts Museum's ÜberPortrait exhibition in 2009.
Fragile Fortress: The Art of Dan Webb is organized by Bellevue Arts Museum, curated by Nora Atkinson and made possible with lead support from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.
(above: Dan Webb, I Love You, 2006, Carved fir, ribbon, steel, 20 x 15 x 9 inches. Collection of Cathy and Michael Casteel. Photo: Dan Webb)
First Friday Talk with Dan Webb: April 4, 7 to 8PM
Celebrate Dan Webb's first museum solo exhibition and hear the artist speak about the evolution of his wood sculptures. FF Talks are a monthly event bringing artists and experts in the field in the field of art, craft, and design to BAM to share their knowledge and engage with audiences. Attendees are invited to RSVP on Bellevue Arts Museum's website. Fragile Fortress: The Art of Dan Webb is presented in partnership with the Rita & Herbert Rosen Family Foundation.
(above: Dan Webb, Destroyer (detail), 2012, Carved fir, 100 x 35 x 21 inches. Private Collection. Photo: Dan Webb)
(above: Dan Webb, Runner (detail), 2011, Carved maple, 51 x 50 x 58 inches. Photo: Dan Webb)
Resource Library editor's note
The above essay was published in the catalog for the exhibition Fragile Fortress: The Art of Dan Webb, on view from March 7 through June 15, 2014. The essay was published April 4, 2014 in Resource Library with permission of Bellevue Arts Museum, which was granted to TFAO on April 3, 2014. Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Tanja Baumann and Emilie Smith of the Bellevue Arts Museum for their help concerning publishing the essay.
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