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Dan Webb and Kathy Venter, who both have brilliant new shows at Bellevue Arts Museum, are artists who make things.

That might, at first glance, seem an over-obvious statement. But it’s something that can’t be taken for granted in an art world where some of the biggest names — Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst — merely come up with some ideas and then hire assistants to execute them. Webb and Venter, by engaging so directly with their materials, make powerful statements about artistic talent and process.

As Webb has commented, “You can come up with a brilliant thought and have an army of fabricators make the brilliant thought, but there’s no pushback. There’s nobody saying that you’re wrong or asking why this idea is so strong. … When you have to make it yourself, you’re faced with that every day. Is this really strong or is there another aspect of this that I’m not seeing or thinking about?”

“Fragile Fortress: The Art of Dan Webb” is the Seattle artist’s first solo show at a museum. It focuses mostly on his work from the past 10 years, and while it’s small in scale — just 17 pieces — it makes a big impression. The main take-away from it: Webb is a wizard with wood.

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“Fragile Fortress” takes its title from “Fortress” (2009), one of the most enchanting pieces in the show. This carved cedar sculpture depicting a child’s game is a tour de force, with its two youngsters hidden under a blanket from which only their sneaker-shod feet poke out. The folds of the blanket are beautifully evoked by the grain of the wood. The sneakers are downright photorealistic in detail.

Here and elsewhere, Webb makes wood do things it seems impossible for wood to do: turn it persuasively into a dandelion (“Woodylion”), a birthday balloon (“I Love You”) or a pillow (“Sleeper”).

He isn’t, however, limited to realistic carved-wood replications of actual objects. Two fascinating pieces, “Stretch” and “Squeeze” (both from 2006), depict the same human face but distort it in wildly different ways. The result: Carved teak takes on weirdly rubbery qualities.

More subtle is “Shroud” (2008), a redwood bust where you can almost discern the facial features of a head “wrapped” in fabric. Of course, there’s no face under there, even if one is ingeniously suggested by the “drapery” of the wood. (References to René Magritte’s “The Lovers” and 18th-century Italian sculptor Antonio Corradini are there for the finding, for those who like their art allusion-filled.)

The last few years have found Webb highlighting the contrasts, in jarring/bracing ways, between his raw material and what he can do with it. “Destroyer” (2012) is a colossal piece that leaves most of its 8-foot-high fir bulk as is. But dangling from it are two meticulously rendered workman’s arms, their gloved hands holding a mallet and chisel, the tools of Webb’s trade. Both are “chain-linked” to their bulk-timber source, and can be neatly folded back into the hollows from which they were extracted.

“Runner,” “The Insider,” “Mr. Butterfly” and “Cut Flamed Spalted” explore similar contrasts between raw wood and carved finery. BAM has published a superb monograph to accompany the show that includes essays by Webb and exhibit curator Nora Atkinson as well as an interview with Webb.

Canadian artist Venter is based on Salt Spring Island and, like Webb, is adamant about engaging directly with her medium — ceramics — rather than hiring a team of craftsmen to do the work.

“In the process of making the sculpture,” she has commented, “new things are discovered. This growth and transference cannot be accomplished by an intermediary.”

“Kathy Venter: LIFE” comes to us from Toronto’s Gardiner Museum, but some of it will be familiar to anyone who saw her memorable installation, “Coup d’Oeil,” at the “BAM Biennial 2010: Clay Throwdown!” This group of six life-size female figures returns for this new show, and is kept company by even more impressive work.

Venter’s sculptures, mostly of young females, are more than simply figurative. After firing them, she applies cement, dental plaster and other materials (often brightly colored) to their surface. The resulting smears, drips and coatings are then sandblasted to “age” the pieces. Venter’s intuitive coloring of her figures denotes no particular items of clothing or accessory, but instead infuses an abstract element into her startlingly vivid and present figures.

Her models are mostly from Salt Spring and include young women she has watched grow up since she moved there in 1989. Some of her assemblages — notably “Metanarrative” — are allegorical.

The most amazing pieces come from her “Immersion” series: life-size ceramic figures suspended in the air, based on studies of swimmers, both male and female, floating underwater. Clay, of course, is malleable stuff, capable of taking on many guises — but getting it to “float” is something of an artistic miracle.

This work, like Webb’s, is remarkable. Don’t miss it.

Michael Upchurch:

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