A couple of pictures showed up on a Facebook page in late June. Images of the human body. Or parts of them, anyway: a torso and arm of a male figure in one, an indeterminate hand (left) in the other. While they were au naturel, they were also, paradoxically, clothed – in a way. With powdered sugar, to be exact. And not just randomly dusted with the stuff; there was pattern evident in the application.
Lace. The complex patterns and utterances of lace.
These sugar images are ephemeral pieces by Canadian sculptor Cal Lane, and are consequent upon a couple of earlier works that date back ten years: Powdered Tires, in which she spread sugar on old tires the treads of which had been reworked into floral patterns, and then rolled them across the floor to create an impression; and her Dirt Lace installations, in which she would spread a section of lace on a gallery floor, brush dirt across it, and remove the lace to leave its negative image behind, then repeat the process so as to form a large grid.
But it’s actually not the temporary or intentionally ephemeral I want to speak to, not sugar and dirt. Rather, it’s a far less transitory aesthetic, one shaped of metal, and by fire.
Like lace, much of Lane’s aesthetic concerns what is not there. It’s about absence, about the all-important gaps: the metaphorical zeroes to the world’s many ones, the nothings that give all the somethings context and meaning. In much of her sculptural work, Lane accomplishes this with the controlled application of fire and heat to things metal. She’s a welder by background, trained in the field in the mid-1990s after getting a diploma in the fine arts in her native British Columbia. She then moved from one side of the North American continent to the other and to the port city of Halifax on Canada’s east coast, where she obtained her BFA from the legendary Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. From there, she went southwest to the State University of New York for her MFA, all the while exhibiting the work she produced in exhibitions in North America, Europe and Australia.
And that work focused on the articulation of careful aesthetic subtractions from existent things. I proffer, by way of example, a piece entitled Five Shovels. Done in 2005, it’s simple and elegant: a series of store-bought shovels, the steel blades of which have been painstakingly cut away with a plasma torch to leave behind the intricate and fine traceries of floral patterns. Wheelbarrow, done two years later, reiterates her approach: remove, cut away the extraneous, use emptiness to contour and shape and re-define somethingness, and transform a utile artefact – a tool, essentially – into something totally other.
And it’s not just about the aesthetically appealing and decorative. Lane’s work has social political implications and intentions. Fossil Fuel, a piece from 2009, comprises an old tank that is still in use for storing home heating oil. Lane’s cut away its containing solidity to leave behind the equivalent of lines of latitude and longitude that circumvent its non-earth-like shape, and includes our host planet’s land masses amidst the gridded regularity of the map. Filigree Car Bombing, from two years previous, is an untidy pile of twisted and broken car part – doors, hood, bumpers, etc. – that she’s worked into with her plasma cutter, burning out a delicate skein of interconnected lace-like lines weaving together the shapes and patterns of flowers and plants, the whole installation then dusted with a lace of dirt. And Ammunition Box from 2011, a wall-hung work, is made up of two of the artefacts, their toxic containment roles effaced by an elimination that leaves them resembling something akin to wrought iron fencing, though Lane has been careful to leave the embossed metal text elements on each, tugging the work semantically back to its awful original use and setting up a powerful tension between what was and what is. As is the case with all her work.
It is, of course, the aesthetic of oppositions that’s going on here, taking one thing and utterly stripping away – even expunging – its conventions, usage(s) and understood meaning(s) and turning it into something diametrically opposite. But Lane is so very very good at employing this conceit with devastatingly spot-on consequences. Her work means.
She’s refined the approach she’s taken with her dirt and sugar lace patterns, transforming the concept into light. Guttersnipe (2012) breathtakingly demonstrates this. Materially, it takes the form of a half-section of large steel pipe – sewer pipe, actually – cut along its length. From it she’s done her cut-away work, leaving behind a wildly intricate landscape filled with tall buildings, bombs, and winged angel-like creatures all caught within and held in place by a complex web of organic curling vines. The work leans against a gallery wall, and within the arced space it creates below itself, she’s installed lights that project shadows of her imagery onto the gallery wall and ceiling, the crispness of shadows nearby becoming blurred and indistinct as they move further away, until the darkness becomes whole.
The same year she created Guttersnipe, Lane was invited to participate in the Sydney Biennale along with several other Canadian artists. Her work was an enormous steel shipping container, painstakingly cut away on three sides so as to transform it into a kind of menagerie, botanical patterns of curling vines or tree limbs (which she extended up beyond the top of the container) populated with birds, rodents and dragon-like creatures, underscored by four-legged animals cavorting about beneath it all.
Lane’s moved beyond the abstractions of lace, now. Pattern alone no longer suffices. Meaningful representation beckons. Where she’ll take it will be interesting to watch, but be assured: it will mean.
By Gill McElroy
Cal Lane was featured in the July/August 2014 issue of Sculpture magazine. You can read the entire article online here. She was also a recipient of the International Sculpture Center’s 2001 Outstanding Student Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Awards.