Dan Webb's wood sculpture has always been genius: funny, generous, masterful, self-aware. It is always about the process of its own making—the process of making something light or evanescent, like a balloon or a flame, out of something heavy, like wood, or of representing a classical marble bust as a goofy, grainy carving. It is often about the passage of time.
But this year, Webb upped the ante. He incorporated photography, and got courageously personal. He created a work called Little Cuts, devoted to the memory of his brother, who'd died of brain cancer. In it, a long row of 40 photographs documents a block of wood that Webb painstakingly carved into a man's face, then a skull. He kept going, cutting away until it was a nub, and, finally, gone. The final photograph is a whiteout; next to it is a Plexiglas box full of the shavings set on a shelf. There's so much unseen and seemingly fruitless labor here, so much restraint, it's almost too empty and raw to look at. JEN GRAVES
We shortlisted Cris Bruch last year, but we're doing it again because we can't stop talking about his work. He is the elder statesman of conceptual sculpture in Seattle, and translates time into form. His works, seen in a terrific 20-year retrospective at Lawrimore Project this year, are the result of slow, deliberate, repetitive labor—a headless mother figure, for instance, made of a high-tech silvery construction material that's designed to save time on big building projects, but which Bruch cuts by hand into old-fashioned shingles.
Since the 1990s, the overt references to social issues and politics in Bruch's work have gone underground, but they're still very much there in his feminist-influenced decisions about the value of labor and productivity. The term "obsessive," often used to describe his works, should be put to rest once and for all. In fact, there is nothing compulsive about them. They may be mysteriously abstracted, but they are also deeply sane. Of all the things to do, making these was worth the time. They represent a pointed pause in the world. JEN GRAVES
Tip Toland constructs big, ceramic statues, many of them self-portraits. In one, she's skinny, bald, naked, and crouching, wearing the expression of someone with a good secret. In another, she's an oversized baby, smearing lipstick on her cheek. A third, a bust, synthesizes the two, depicting the middle-aged artist as a shrunken and silver-haired but still elegant old woman squinting into a mirror as she begins the habitual task of applying lipstick. The narrative is almost secondary—looking at them, it is as though you've never seen an intimate sculpture of an old woman before. And have you?
The pieces are unnervingly lifelike, with their wrinkled and freckled skin, but hyperrealism is not the point. The bodies—in one case, two naked versions of the artist from the waist up, breasts and stomachs sagging, whistling at each other—don't entirely attempt the mental leap from clay to flesh. They stand in front of you, inviting you to gawk, and ask playful questions about self-exposure, aging, and about what is represented and how. JEN GRAVES
When you think of Deb Baxter, you think of tongues and necks and endless possibility. This year, she made sculpture and video using alabaster, gum, paper, sweat, fur, ruffled fabric, and concrete. Baxter just finished her MFA at Bard and returns to Seattle this fall.
I like you (I almost don't hate you anymore) is shaped like a bat spreading its wings, or sexy underwear, or a smile—it looks menacing, seductive, and silly. Outkast Gave Me an Asthma Attack is an inhaler made of thin, cloudy alabaster. On a more serious note, Swallow is a long wedge of rough concrete. Something is perched on the high end of the wedge, a shape in thick, gray-white alabaster that looks like the fleshy folds of a cast throat. Getting the Love Want (practice) is a video of two people, one above the other, sharing a length of gum in a scene of grotesque and beautiful intimacy. All you want from her is more. JEN GRAVES