Kurt Brian Webb & the Dance of Death

War: Dance of Death in Black, White, and Blood Red All Over, is the name of a timely exhibition of woodcuts shown at the A Shenere Velt Gallery in Los Angeles. Printmaker Kurt Brian Webb’s blunt, no-nonsense graphic style makes clear an unequivocal opposition to the forces of war and militarism through prints that are at once honest, sardonic, and mordantly funny. The pale rider of course stalks every one of us, but Webb chooses to focus on the military figures who have danced with Mr. D., and in so doing the artist reveals the human condition.

All the prints in Webb’s exhibit are hand-carved from blocks of wood and printed in two colors on Japanese rice paper. Webb updated this technique by printing his designs on faded images of corporate newspaper stories pertaining to the conflagration in Iraq – and the blending of traditional techniques, jarring imagery, and mass media detritus makes for some searing antiwar artworks.

“Marching Infantry Corporal: Death toll in Iraq war reaches grim milestone.” Kurt Brian Webb. Two-color woodblock print. 10” x 8.” 2006.

Marching Infantry Corporal: Death toll in Iraq war reaches grim milestone, depicts a doomed infantryman as he trudges along, burdened by heavy combat gear and a skeleton that rides him like a pack mule. The print was created in 2006 when U.S. military fatalities in Iraq had reached 822. That the toll has reached 4013 as of this writing only makes Webb’s print more foreboding.

There is a timeless quality to Webb’s prints, which not only attests to the artist’s considerable skill but also to his having tapped into a well established tradition in print making that makes use of death imagery for purposes of social commentary, José Guadalupe Posada comes to mind. At the turn of the 20th century the famous Mexican printmaker created over 1,600 satirical prints that featured calaveras (skeletons) deriding the pillars of society as well as the landless peasantry. But Kurt Brian Webb found his inspiration in the medieval prints of Europe.

“Staff Sergeant Depending on Prosthetic Limb: Amputation rate for U.S. troops twice that of past wars.” Kurt Brian Webb. Two-color woodblock print. 10” x 8.” 2006.

While traveling in Germany years ago I purchased a book titled, Der Tanzende Tod (The Dancing Death), a compilation of woodcut prints by various German artists from the medieval period illustrating their views of death. The glumly humorous prints depicted skeletal figures and decaying cadavers mocking everyone from Cardinals and Kings to Knights and commoners. Such prints were widespread throughout Europe in the middle ages – an epoch of brutal feudalism, peasant revolts, religious wars, and of course the Bubonic Plague. Kurt Brian Webb has updated the medieval view of quietus and the Angel of Death, to frame imperialist war as our epoch’s plague.

“Tod und der Kaiser.” (Death and the Emperor). German woodblock print from the 1480s. From the book Der Tanzende Tod.

War: Dance of Death ran at the A Shenere Velt Gallery and closed Sunday, May 4, 2008. The gallery is located at the Workman’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, 1525 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles 90035.

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