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Lost in Space: Outsiderness and the Art of Dave Lane

Installation view of Out in Space at the Richard L. Nelson Gallery, University of California at Davis. Photo by Robin Bernhard
Installation view of Out in Space at the Richard L. Nelson Gallery, University of California at Davis. Photo by Robin Bernhard

This essay originally appeared in the catalogue for Out in Space: Sculptures, Drawings, Paintings by Dave Lane, at the Richard L. Nelson Gallery at the University of California at Davis through March 8. Curated by gallery director Renny Pritikin, the exhibition fills the Nelson with dozens of Lane’s gigantic steel sculptures, fabricated out of discarded farm equipment and industrial scrap, and lines the walls with his word-filled drawings. For more about the show, including additional catalogue essays by Pritikin and Lane himself, go to

Years ago, when I first started writing about outsider art, I mentioned the term to someone who didn’t happen to be an art world insider. She looked puzzled and asked, “Outside art—you mean art that’s shown outdoors?”

By that definition, Dave Lane is indisputably an outsider artist. Much of his work originates out of doors, in his backyard studio, and many pieces are too big to be shown comfortably anywhere else. Moreover, his creations explore the vast, human-dwarfing world out beyond the buildings and banalities we erect to protect ourselves from what’s always looming over us—the immensity of time, the endlessness of space, the great outdoors on a literally cosmic scale.

Lane wants to show us the ultimate solace he has found out there where most of us see only terrifying desolation, and warn us of the desolation and terror he sees lurking where most of us look for comfort—family, home, the insides of our own heads, the cozy little worlds we draw tightly around ourselves to keep what we can’t comprehend at bay.

This evangelical aspect of Lane’s work, and the obsessions that drive him to create, point to the reasons he has been likened to an outsider artist. True, Lane himself falls outside the outsider universe by almost every definition. Yet his art and its intentions evoke some of the most moving and unsettling qualities of the outsider idea.

Of course outsider art really doesn’t refer to art out in the open. But what exactly it does mean has long been under dispute, even among specialists in the field. The term was launched in the early 1970s as the English-language equivalent of art brut, Jean Dubuffet’s coinage for the work of the institutionalized insane and the deeply eccentric. People have been arguing ever since about how or whether to use it. Dubuffet’s own definition of art brut was very personal and full of loopholes, and attempts to transpose his idea to the American context and apply it to art by everyone from rural Southern African-Americans to the developmentally disabled to prison inmates quickly ran into a minefield of intellectual, marketing, and political-correctness problems.

Some have tried to replace outsider with more neutral terms, such as self-taught or vernacular. Yet even many indisputably establishment artists are largely self-taught and use vernacular sources and themes, and anyway these antiseptic labels deliberately ignore the deep strangeness that is part of the power of such outsider masterpieces as Henry Darger’s hallucinatory scenes of charging soldiers battling naked children, Adolf Wölfli’s ecstatically dense autobiographical song-maps, and Martin Ramirez’s throbbing vaqueros and madonnas.

The most useful definition of outsider is the one pointed to by the critic Arthur Danto: “art not of the art world.” Just about all artists feel compelled to make art, but outsiders create to grapple with a different set of problems. Most art responds—brilliantly or incompetently, sophisticatedly or crudely—to our culture’s dominant art-historical narrative, whether as a reflection of the story, an effort to move it forward, or a reaction against it. Outsider work can be recognized by its lack of engagement with that narrative, by its more personal, more obsessive focus, by the way art conventions are shoved aside in the artist’s fanatical effort to realize a compelling vision that has little to do with art per se. As a result, outsider works’ intention, look, and spirit stand well outside what we’re likely to find in most galleries, art schools, or museums.

For those who define outsider artists via their biographies, rather than their work, Dave Lane emphatically does not qualify. He’s a college graduate who lives in a comfortable house and has held down a demanding job for more than a quarter century. He has studied art in depth, in both academic and informal settings, and is well versed in the practice and thinking of other contemporary artists. This is a portrait of an art insider, not the unhinged recluse the words outsider artist typically connote.

Lane’s art, however, thrums with otherness. His giant steel constructions look like nothing but themselves, with their ominous rollers and sharp prongs, their artful near-symmetry and neo-Victorian furbelows, their ponderous lightness, their air of mysterious but urgent purpose. It’s all too clear that aesthetics are not the primary motivation for his text-filled thought-maps, dense tangles of mentation-made-visible, records of ideas tying themselves into fantastical crochet.

The point is not merely that Lane’s work is highly original, but that its originality flows from Lane’s burning need to trumpet a message he can find no other way of conveying. Perhaps calling Lane a visionary artist—yet another term sometimes treated as a synonym for outsider—is the best way to describe his undertaking.

Like outsider master Howard Finster, who saw his art as a vehicle for spreading visions of God’s word, Lane is a proselytizer, albeit one whose message is considerably less familiar. His works, large and small, all have a primarily heuristic function: they seek to articulate what Lane’s visions have revealed to him about the nature of the mind and the world.

Lane grew up in rural California, east of Modesto, and spent much of his time on his family’s ranch outside of Tuolumne. As a child he was an avid model builder, making every model kit he could get his hands on. It was also in childhood that he first sought to manage troubling dreams by recreating them with paper, pen, and cardboard. When he was about ten years old he dreamt about giant bird heads that were also locomotive-like mechanisms. Later he tried to recreate these “bird machines” with old boxes and a toy wagon, to the bemusement of his neighbors. This was perhaps his first experience with the difficulty of explaining what his creations were about.

He attended college first in Modesto and then at Cal State Fresno. Putting aside his youthful desire to be a writer, he majored in engineering in the interest of future employability. He maintained his model-making hobby, abandoning commercially produced kits for “scratch building” of model boats. When he again began having frightening dreams, he sought relief from the anxiety they provoked by drawing them on paper and sculpting them in bronze.

After graduating he moved to Sacramento and was hired as a map maker by a state agency for which he has worked ever since. But he was plagued by visions, and the “bird machines” and other dreams of his childhood forcefully came back to him. He redoubled his efforts to make models of what he’d seen. His earlier small bronzes led to increasingly ambitious pieces in wood and then steel. Through Sacramento State’s Open University extension program, Lane learned welding and other techniques, then refined and elaborated them through his own intense practice, building ever larger, more technically challenging pieces.

He also moved far beyond simply recreating his dreams, instead seeking to understand and elaborate them in scientific, artistic, and philosophical contexts, letting them lead him into a never-ending exploration of the process of exploration. He has seized on metaphors of outer space—of interplanetary travel, of aliens who create and destroy planets, of intergalactic civilizations that sow stars like wheat—as a way of investigating our place in the world, the nature of time, and the purpose of art. Casting himself as a kind of mad scientist, he tinkers with a magical device that is his own brain, observing its limits, experimenting with ever more complicated art-machines that push consciousness in previously unimagined directions.

He began entering his sculptures in the California State Fair’s art show in 1996, and has appeared there every year since. Many thousands more people visit the state fair, he has pointed out, than ever enter a typical gallery. Although his sculptures have repeatedly won recognition at the fair, including two Best of Show awards, he has never sold his work and has rarely exhibited elsewhere. He estimates that his large sculptures cost him an average of $8,000 apiece to make.

In his thought-maps and in the texts that are a feature of many of his other works, in his statements about individual pieces, in his voluminous writings, and in conversation, Lane overflows with the desire to tell “what all these things are about,” “these things” being not only his work but his life, his ideas, perhaps the whole world as it exists for him. He explains one analogy with another, follows one digression breathlessly into the next, nests one metaphor inside another like Russian dolls that range from infinitely small to big enough to contain the whole universe. For him it is not enough that all this has led to the work he has made; he passionately wants the rest of us to see, in the steel colossi and paper and paint before us, the full measure of the “all this” from which his art arises. He knows this is impossible, but he cannot bear to give up. He is endlessly frustrated by this and perhaps thereby endlessly inspired.

At the same time, Lane’s urge to communicate struggles with an equally strong urge to conceal. His elegant Keys pieces are proclaimed to embody a secret that the artist will neither write nor speak about. His Family Secrets series include paintings whose content is deliberately obscured and creatures with multiple eyes that are unwilling to articulate what they see. Even when Lane tries to communicate what he’s up to, his impassioned explanations resist clarity at every turn; pursuing his meaning is like chasing a fox that keeps disappearing into thickets of story and digression. His thought-maps lay bare what’s on his mind but in tiny writing that curves around the page and doubles back on itself; to decipher them a reader has to be nearly as obsessed as the artist himself.

This primal tension between revelation and secrecy is one reason that, despite Lane’s Christian faith and stoic acceptance of humankind’s humble place in the universe, his work radiates a profound anxiety about loss. In everything from his use of rescued farm equipment and discarded industrial steel to his preoccupation with the recycling of planets, Lane expresses a yearning to recapture what time takes away, to preserve and reuse as a way of pushing back oblivion. He seeks to preserve his visions, too, in his art and his archives: amid all the collections that crowd his house—of globes, antique machine parts, art books—perhaps the biggest collection of all is his years-long, day-to-day record of his own thoughts and activities, entombed in dozens of thick white binders.

He is haunted by the prospect of nonexistence—the Earth’s, his own. The more he diligently populates his world with ever bigger and more elaborate creations, the more painful is his recognition that in time both he and they must inevitably disappear. His maps and his family genealogies of planets seek to impose order on disorderly thoughts and feelings, but the ordering system itself keeps elaborating into incoherence. His towering, rusting space machines devour worlds as well as create them; they’re as terrifying as they are beautiful. His ranks of giant keys proclaim the impossibility of unlocking the shackles that bind our hearts.

There is so much Lane wants to tell us, so much he needs to show us, but in the end all we are left with are the gorgeous, heartbroken, angry, jubilant things he has made. That is both a tragedy and a triumph. The tragedy lies in the work’s qualities of outsiderness—the urgency of its message, the impossibility of its mission. The triumph is the work itself, whose richness of potential meaning—formal, emotional, scientific, religious, psychological, political, philosophical—far exceeds even the artist’s maddest ambitions.


Tessa DeCarlo

Tessa DeCarlo claims to have a few illusions remaining.


The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2009

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