Obsession, eccentricity and excess are hallmarks of visionary art, and in this far-reaching, object-packed survey, “Out in Space,” sculptor Dave Lane displayed an abundance of those qualities, demonstrating his stature as one of the genre’s emerging stars. To the art world this will be news. For decades Lane has purposefully and successfully ducked the distractions of dealers, collectors and critics; and it was only through the gentle encouragement of Nelson Director Renny Pritikin (and a few influential artist friends) that this soft-spoken, loquacious sculptor assented to blowing his cover in such bravura fashion. To consecrate his coming out, Lane even dedicated a new body of work – “The Lost Planet Series” – to his still-uneasy relationship with commerce, while simultaneously expressing a desire to see his legacy preserved in a one-man museum, intact.
Lane may be a visionary artist, but he’s not an outsider in the sense of being uneducated or unaware of art history; he’s a highly literate engineer who works for the California Department of Water Resources, maintaining the structural integrity of levees that protect the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta’s 98 islands. His art consists of monumental steel sculptures accompanied by detailed, text-laced diagrams, drawings and dioramas that, together, lay out a world view that includes not only imaginary creation myths, but also a host of epistemological, philosophical and religious musings that question, at every turn, the artist’s conclusions and the perceptual/sensory apparatus that enabled them. As such, his vision incorporates various mythopoetic fantasies based on childhood dreams, the likes of which most adults lack the capacity to summon. But rather than forget or repress such remembrances, Lane fashions them into astonishing objects.
The show featured 14 large-scale, steel sculptures, 142 drawings and 33 boxed dioramas accompanied by a soundtrack of birds, crickets and music. Shoehorned into the Nelson’s relatively compact space, the effect was the artistic equivalent of “shock and awe,” a product of not only the sheer number of large, muscular sculptures packed into the gallery, but also the quantity of revelatory text inscribed onto drawings in a hand so small as to be almost indecipherable.
Lane’s most eye-grabbing works are clearly his sculptures – exercises in “planet building” he calls them. These he creates by scavenging old farm implements (tractors tools, food processing equipment) from across the West and reassembling the parts into phantasmagoric objects that tower overhead like “machines of loving grace” as poet Richard Brautigan might have put it. They include pieces like “Grandma Planet,” a 16-foot-tall tricycle festooned with wings, light bulbs, chain-suspended “charms” and a giant globe; “Device for Creating Stars,” a yellow-light emitting cylindrical shape set on wheels that looks like a bathysphere retooled for the space age; “Heart of Gold,” an enormous steel cage with inward facing spikes that directly references the area’s history of gold mining, railroading and slavery; and a lyrical series called “The Keys” consisting of interconnected flywheels whose spokes resemble the outstretched arms of the Hindu goddess Kali – pieces about which the artist declines to comment except to say that they contain secrets.
Mining spiritual value from America’s ancient industrial past would seem to be a stretch given the obvious antecedent of Jean Tinguely’s self-destructive machines that slammed mindless consumption; but Lane’s sentient, playful, majestic contraptions do something else: With their repeated motif of interlocking circles that mirror the cosmic order of things, these sculptures assert that through creative invention, we can collapse time and space and manipulate matter at will. But not without consequence or serious doubt.
That’s where the dioramas come in. Most consist of cross sections of charred earth on which ambiguous relationships play out on an idyllic terrain between a clothed man and a naked woman, both executed as miniatures. Each is accompanied by lengthy typed texts which appear framed below the boxes. In his catalog essay Pritikin likens the scope of Lane’s vision to that of English poet/painter William Blake (1757 – 1827), whose struggles with religious dogma also fueled visionary artwork. But another more contemporary analog – at least to the written parts of Lane’s dioramas and quasi-anthropological “Delta Maps” – would be Robert Crumb, the counterculture cartoonist whose fraught mixture of metaphysics and earthly desire Lane seems to have absorbed. The results are laugh-out-loud “conversations” that lay bare the spiritual and intellectual battle Lane fights as he tries, through art, to reconcile the contradictions between faith and reason.
These imaginary dialogs, which also include animals, fishermen, hobos and hermits, approximate those that the artist has with himself. Elsewhere, in a separate room, Lane installed a series of shellac-and-graphite drawings titled “Family Secrets.” They consist of loose, biomorphic shapes over which he inserts vertical and horizontal lines of handwritten text that allude to murder, betrayals, lies and other disappointments and frustrations.
Together, these sculptures, maps, drawings and dioramas, show the artist trying to impose order on an unruly world that no matter how hard he tries, seems to elude his grasp, comprehension and control. What’s heartening is Lane’s persistence and his ability to give form to the unfathomable in materially rich ways that challenge us on every level: physically, intellectually and emotionally.
–DAVID M. ROTH
Dave Lane, “Out in Space” through March 8, 2009 @ Richard L. Nelson Gallery, UC Davis