Tradition goes that when a soldier is away at war, the family keeps a candle in the window. When someone dies, a candle is lit in remembrance. It is the absence of the body that calls a candle to service and turns the flame into an envoy for the soul. There are two candles in the windows at Howard House. They are not real, but carved out of wood. One is sculpted to look as though it has just been lit. It has its whole life before it. Its name is Always. The other has no flame. It has burned all the way down, and its drippings have hardened into frozen trickles. The pool at its base has solidified. Its name is Never. Together, the candles, whose titles provide the name of Dan Webb's remarkable new show, Never Always, remind me of the title of Damien Hirst's most famous sculpture, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. With only a few exceptions (see the 19th-century folk portraits of deceased children on display at the Frye through Feb 4), we respond to death with sculpture. Monuments are the universal protest for the disappearance of the body. If flame is a way to channel the soul, then gravestones are a way to reconstruct the body. Did you know that most cemeteries no longer allow those beautiful, historical white marble headstones that grow light green moss and gather dirt in their carvings like writing, because they are considered too soft? Granite is usually required now. (Except in military cemeteries: go figure.) While the decomposing body beneath the ground inches closer to oblivion—to never—the rock body above ground is ever more always.
Webb is one of the best artists in Seattle, and some days I think he is simply the best. The day I saw this latest show was one of those days. In a single work he tackles the history of Western sculpture and its relationship to life and death without being even a little pretentious or esoteric. These small candles, carved out of the same block as their pedestals, can be simple narrative situations paired with simple title words, or they can be a rush of references stemming from the spiritualism of sculpture since ancient times, when deities were believed to reside in the figures representing them. Howard House owner Billy Howard points out that the fat rhomboid of Webb's candlesticks is the same shape as the repeated form in Brancusi's 96-foot-high Endless Column in Romania, a sculptural jab at another world if ever there was one.
Clever meditations on mortality have run throughout Webb's work in the past, but in this show they take on a haunting, not jesting, quality. A row of 40 photographs documents the carving of a block of wood into a man's face, which morphs into a skull and then disintegrates. The final photograph is blank, and next to it is a clear box full of the shavings, like a transparent urn. The piece is called Little Cuts in reference to the literal, repetitive, clock-ticking process of making it. It is a memento mori to Webb's brother, who died recently of a brain tumor.
I Love You, Plastic Rose, and Bear take the cheap castoffs of contemporary life—a helium balloon from the grocery store, a fake rose mounted as though on a plaque, a forgotten child's toy lying face-down—and treat them with affecting care. Each object has been painstakingly carved to perfection (and Webb is monumentally—pun intended—talented as a carver) and lifted into new life.
For Splash, Webb made a wooden pedestal whose top surface is lacquered to the point of being reflective and carved into the shape of a water's surface where a drop has bounced up, but not yet fallen. Time is halted; sculpture exerts its power. Except that the delicacy of the crown of drips formed around the drop underscores the fragility of even this, and the natural color of the wood is darker on one side, as though a shadow has fallen onto the sculpture. Time is always lurking.
Stretch and Squeeze are another dichotomous pair; they're two heads that look like rubber masks distorted in different ways. They're the most formal works in the show, and they might be read as Webb's most direct testimony against the readymade-as-sculpture—and for the notion that sculpture includes the physical transformation of materials.