Dan Webb
Howard House, 2017 Second Ave, 256-6399
Through Oct 18.

A few years ago I picked up one of Dan Webb's sculptures and it seemed to me that I had given birth to it. I was in the artist's studio looking at an unfinished sculpture on the floor, a fully inflated balloon carved out of wood. My first instinct was to touch it, and because I was in his studio and not in a gallery, I did; I squatted down over the balloon and cradled it in my hands, and I was struck by the absurd notion that it had slipped right out of me.

It seems to me that in my life I've squatted down and picked up many things that didn't lead to weird womb fantasies, and that the difference between everyday and Webbian objects is significant here. It was the strangeness of the thing, the paradoxical pairing of a light entity with a heavy material--and the particular compassionate feelings it inspired--that jolted me into that unexpected, rather embarrassing place.

I've admired Webb's work for some time now, but I've never been entirely sure what he was up to. The work I liked best--the suit of armor made from duct tape, the enormous lampshades, the bare-assed garden gnomes cavorting through stacks of mass-produced fake-woodgrain tables--all pointed to an instability I enjoyed but couldn't name. There was never any doubt that Webb was talented, could do pretty much anything he damn well pleased and do it well, but I wasn't sure what, if anything, it meant beyond that feeling of uneasiness.

In retrospect I realize it had much to do with my sudden, violent attachment to a heavy wood balloon. Such sideways moments are fairly common in art nowadays: They're the result of the things you know being defamiliarized, of a reality that slides out of phase, revealing that margin--at times broad, at times slender--of difference between art and life. The idea is to lead you away from familiar and rigid notions toward a realm that is allusive and slippery and often wordless. This realm, as it happens, has many qualities in common with insomnia, which is the idiom Webb has used for his new installation at Howard House, his tightest show so far.

The works in Insomnia Machine can be seen as aspects of that sliding world, and they are tied together by the amazing eponymous work, a carved wooden track that runs through the gallery on high trestles, skimming the walls on mounted brackets, looping through a tiny dignified portal arch in the wall, around a gnome sculpture, and back again. You can run a little clear marble along this track--a mesmerizing and satisfying and even vertiginous activity, as the ball swoops along the groove's curves, finally popping into a box below a tiny rumpled bed.

The success of this installation to a large degree resists words: Somehow the action of a little glinting marble cruising down this path feels exactly right. Somnolent, crazy, repetitive, unexpected--it is the working of the anxious mind made elegantly physical, down to the fact that the only thing that sets the ball into motion is our own will to do so: The mind mercilessly retreading the same ground until it goes to sleep, or else breaks through some previously untried barrier.

What might that be? The sculptures linked by this mechanism don't specify, but suggest the close relationship of stimulation, creativity, and danger. For an insomniac, the world shrinks to the size of an anxiety, and there are a few small globe sculptures that seem ideal but show tiny signs of distress. Objects shift unreliably away from known territory, such as a heroic sculptural bust gone goofy and mutated, with buck teeth and fleshy nose, rendered both in wood that seems to be melting and plaster that is all pink, dripping goo inside.

But to call this world nightmarish is too simple--it's not so much about fear as a perverse sense of possibility. The beautifully carved melting bust is laid on a table with a fake wood veneer, cunningly arranged so that the two wood grains, real and simulated, line up. It is supremely, absurdly logical; a strangeness that to the insomniac's mind--or to the artist's, or to the viewer who lets himself be led--is quite perfectly natural.

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