Shayne Dark: Transformational States
Since the late 1990s, following experimental works in mediums as diverse as pottery, cement, plastic, cast metal, and glass, Canadian artist Shayne Dark has gained considerable attention for sculptures that he creates using elements found in nature-specifically, locally sourced branches, limbs, roots, and trunks of trees. Through cutting, carving, arranging, and painting, he transforms these elements into aesthetically compelling objects that are at once familiar, of this world, and otherworldly. Poised as they are between abstraction and representation, we recognize them as nature and as artifice-dualistic embodiments of the often-conflicting forces of nature and humanity. While Dark clearly appreciates the raw potency of natural forms, he imposes his artistic will on them, often by covering the arboreal matter in intensely saturated pigments at striking odds with natural coloration, and thereby transforming matter and meaning.
The mesmerizingly complex, wall-mounted network of blue-painted branches in Force of Nature (2013)resembles a remarkably beautiful, swirling, three-dimensional drawing in space that invites infinite contemplation. Blizzard (2006) consists of thin, white-painted branches aggressively radiating out some 20 feet from a fixed, circular vanishing point on the wall. Standing directly in front of the work often evokes the tense, hypnotic effect of driving against the windshield of a car moving through a snowstorm. Viewed from the side, the extended branches assert a physically powerful, gravity-defying horizontal presence. The forms used for these works have lived their natural life cycles as trees, as elements of nature, and now take on new life as sculpture, as art, as objects of contemplation within the gallery context.
Stripped of their intricate network of twigs, the fiery-red ironwood branches in three works from the “Critical Mass” series (1,2,and 2, 2010/11) rise imposingly on elongated limbs, reaching up to 13 feet above the floor. They resemble spindly, insect-like creatures or perhaps some alien species from an H.G. Wells novel. Grouped closely together, they may seem threatening in their striking beauty-just as nature can be. Strange and compelling, they effectively hove between figuration and abstraction, movement and stasis, visual splendour and psychological intrigue, the earthbound and the otherworldly, natural life forms and art objects. Perched lower to the ground, standing on five outstretched appendages in a menacing posture, the blue-painted Critical Mass 4 (2011) creeps spider-like across the floor, almost as if ready to strike. Out on a Limb (2010) resembles a mysterious, segmented snake or worm, seemingly capable of motion as it emerges from or disappears into a wall and curves around a corner along the floor. This somewhat disturbing effect calls to mind the bizarre creatures from the films of David Lynch or David Cronenberg. Although Dark by no means conjures anything sinister, in his world, nature-and sculpture- is not a benign force. These works exude as much psychological charge as they do visual potency and aesthetic resonance. Windfall (2010) is perhaps equally unsettling, with it’s dense cluster of gnarled, unpainted roots that hang from the ceiling very much like a collection of human skulls or hearts. The imagery, however, may not be quite as morbid as such a comparison might suggest-and, of course, there is wide room for interpretation in this and all of Dark’s works: in certain cultures, the human skull symbolizes transformation between birth and life and life and death, between physical and psychic states, while the heart represents the essence of the life force and the pulse of our existence.
Whether suspended from the ceiling, attached to the wall, or placed on the floor, Dark’s indoor works provoke a powerful, unconfined presence in the viewer’s imagination. But he is equally well regarded for his outdoor works, which have been displayed in various settings, from museum grounds to rural gardens. Into the Blue (2006), a dense stand of nearly two dozen blue-painted, slender, ironwood branches, rise dramatically, 30 feet into the air. When displayed adjacent to the classical architecture of the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, New York, in 2009, the somewhat fragile yet stately demeanour of the forms contrasted and complimented the majestic character of the building. This work, too, embodies transformational states between the physical and the ephemeral, the terrestrial and the celestial, implying a connection between dart and sky, between this world and other realms of existence.Many of Dark’s works suggest relationships to other worlds, other realms, and other planes of existence. Regally installed on a stone plinth in the Kiwi Sculpture Garden in Perth, Ontario, Angel (2002) appears as an apparition ofwhite light in the forest. Two sections of long, thin, white-painted ironwood branches might resemble the outstretched wings of an angel, that divine, white-robes symbol representing, in certain cultural traditions, rejuvenation-the trump of light over darkness, day over night, spring over winter. Within Dark’s lexicon, the angel does not hold a specific religious connotation, though it may suggest a spiritual or celestial dimension to our relationship with nature.
The bright red-orange arrangement of cedar wood in Red Tide (2007) resembles the flames of a fire that call into play the lush greenery of its wooded natural setting. Fire, too, is a natural and symbolic force of transformation that can be understood as an agent of cleansing and renewal. It could also be analogous to the hearth, the ancient center of domestic habitat and survival. Regardless of such associations, the raw, textured surfaces of the driftwood, formed over time by wind and water and altered by striking colour, need nothing more than intrinsic aesthetic potency and beauty to justify their existence as art.
While Red Tide may suggest fire, the outdoor installation of Descent (2007), (there is also an interior version), composed of a 16 foot vertical column of deep-blue-painted ironwood branches surrounded at its base by groupings of smaller blue stumps, calls to mind the image of a waterfall. Aside from any poetic symbolism or metaphorical association, both fire and water are natural elements that embody the dualistic forces of destruction and regeneration, which are, of core, essential to the life cycle and to existence on our planet.
A more recent work suggests the possibility of an evolutionary breakthrough for Dark. While much of the energetic character of his work to this point has been expressed through inventive manipulation and astute exploitation of naturally occurring forms, in Heroes (2013) those forms and energies appear more self-contained, more tightly controlled. Six black-painted, monolithic columns, incised with intricate networks of cuts, stand solid, impenetrable, and silent. Within the context of Dark’s lexicon, these heroes can be seen as personifications of the human figure or as dark sentinels, but they also share something of the character and material presence associated with early Minimalism-form and material integrity become meaning.
In all of Dark’s works, meaning and definition are elusive, mysterious, and intended to resonate within the perception and imagination of the viewer. Through intriguing visual form, these sculptures inspire curiosity about the inexplicable and sublime wonder that is both the natural and the human within us. Currently in his late 50s, Dark may only now be nearing the zenith of a practice that increasingly ponders intersections between nature and artifice, between life and art. in summer 2015, he has been invited to a residency at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. Perhaps this is the most fitting context for Dark, because a garden represents the utopian aspiration to reconcile ourselves with nature and our place within it.
David Liss is Artistic Director and Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art in Toronto. Since the mid-1990s, his writings on art and culture have appeared in numerous magazines, newspapers, exhibition catalogues, and art books published in Canada and beyond.
Into The Woods | The moving and unforgettable sculpture of artist Shayne Dark
It wasn’t so much that his directions were confusing as it was a case of the roads being distractingly, almost indecently beautiful to travel on a sunny September morning. And it seemed to us there were a great many of them, playfully criss-crossing themselves deeper and deeper into the thickly forested landscape.
But all at once there was a steep slope and then a sharp turn and just as my wife, Malgorzata, and I were about to admit to one another that we were hopelessly lost, there, suddenly, stood a welcoming, encouragingly affable Shayne Dark. He was standing, waiting for us, in the small roadway that leads across his two-and-a-half acre spread, first to his studio and then, ultimately, to the exquisite many-windowed house, high on a promontory overlooking Fourteen Island Lake near Sydenham, that he built himself about 20 years ago, in 1993, from designs by his wife, Donna Johnson.
We aren’t there five minutes when we find ourselves in Dark’s studio, a no-nonsense workspace like a machine-shop, where we are now in an inescapable confrontation with two gigantic, searingly red, disquietingly gangly, spider-like presences made of ironwood. Although this work is titled Critical Mass (and just was about to depart for exhibition at the Musee des beaux-arts de Sherbrooke), the towering configurations keep reminding me of the Martian spaceships in the 1953 film of War of the Worlds. Which just speaks to the astonishing effects Dark can elicit from a few lengths of twisted tree.
At the same time (the Critical Mass presences hovering near), we are warmly encouraged by the sculptor to heft and caress a couple of comforting lengths of that very same smooth, dense ironwood – as if to get better acquainted with what is probably Dark’s favourite material. Although he has worked steel, sheets of mirror, car parts and ball-bearings, it is to ironwood that he continually returns. The stuff is more than just a medium to him. It’s something akin to an extension of his personal forest, and of his way of thinking and expressing himself.
All in all, we’ve been visiting with Dark only for about 10 minutes now. It’s already been a full morning.
Shayne Dark is currently one of Canada’s most sought-after makers of major works of public sculpture. The big commissions are now coming thick and fast. Most recently – last April – he won a public art competition for the prestigious X The Condominium, at Charles and Jarvis Streets in Toronto. His stunningly theatrical work, Into the Blue, which once stood outside The Edward Day Gallery in Toronto (Dark’s Toronto dealer), is now majestically installed beside the venerable Albright-Know Gallery in Buffalo, where this chromatically intense clutch of indigo blue, ironwood sticks- soaring up to 30 feet high – has been kept on and on, a protracted loan, on the basis of its crowd-pleasing drama.
Dark exhibits with sufficient frequency now (he has five major exhibitions coming up), and he needs to employ studio assistants to help him with the work that flows pauselessly from his studio. So prolific is he that he has recently had to acquire a second studio to handle it all – a 3,000-square-foot workspace in downtown Kingston.
Like most overnight successes, the 59-year-old Shayne Dark has been working diligently for a long time – for over 20 years.
Like most young artists when they’re starting out, he experimented with all kinds of forms and formats (pottery, plaster relief, plastics, cement fondue, cast metals) before coming to ironwood. "It was when I was building the dock 20 years ago," Dark says, "that I began to pick up these lengths of ironwood that had washed ashore. They always had lots of teeth marks in them – the beavers seemed to prefer them over all other woods!"
At first, he says, he just collected the ironwood branches and limbs and enjoyed them for their own sake – the way people collect hunks of driftwood. It wasn’t until some considerable time later, when he was working in New York for three months with his brother, Randall – who is involved in theatre production – that the idea of painting the ironwood with brilliant, chromatically saturated colour came to him.
Like all great ideas, it was all so simple it was dumb. "I was down in the basement of the Ed Sullivan Theater," Dark remembers, "working on sets. I was using these bright industrial paints, and stirring them with wooden sticks." And just then he had what he calls one of those "aha!" moments: he would now paint his ironwood branches – in eye-poppingly shrill, raucous, deeply unmediated colours. In so doing, he would effect some strangely disturbing, strangely moving, strangely dissonant, utterly unforgettable coming together of the natural and the artificial – of art and life, if you like.
And that has made all the difference. For on precisely such hallowed, grace-filled moments, lifted out of time, are entire careers founded – and lives changed forever.
|The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa, CanadaThe sculptures featured in “Fear and Faith” Shayne Dark and Dennis Gill’s recent exhibition, seemed to be unsettling, if inadvertent, offspring of Louise Bougeois’s Maman (1999/2003), a 30-foot-tall bronze spider bearing a sac of 26 pure white marble eggs under her belly (there is a version in front of the National Gallery of Canada). Neither bronze nor eigth-legged, Dark’s Critical Mass 1, 2, and 3 (2010) resemble arachnid-like little monsters, though they are mutations derived from the forms of uprooted trees. Made from ironwood and colored in a matte fluorescent vermilion, they manage to both absorb and discharge chromatic energy.Their implied mobility is offset by Gill’s two Laocoon pieces (2007, 2009), tree trunks strangled by electrical conduit-an uneasy juxtaposition of visually rampaging, spidery forms and bound captives.Gil’s embryonic Niobe(2010), a 30-inch, broken marble ovoid, spills forth crushed rock salt. Situated on the floor near the center of the gallery, emitted a force around which the larger works orbited. An embodiment of dismay, the boastful Niobe suffers for her hubris when the gods kill all her children; in her grief, she turns to stone. Gill’s damaged egg and crimson hatchlings rendered in hyperbolic color allow for an architectural presence resonant with horrific myth.
Dark applies rich pigment in another untitled work (2010) that naked from the gallery into the foyer. Its matte surface suggests something made from fabric, but it is stone-hard, an ironwood stripling trailed by wooden rounds spooled over 16 feet. An assemblage of gnarled apple wood stumps are painted in equally fluorescent cerulean, their organic forms twisted and intertwined like an odd hap of laundry.Viewers had to interact, engage in a storyline, and immerse themselves within this matrix.
Curator Gil McElroy explained that “much of what we (or I, at any rate) see in it is what we/I bring to the work ourselves…who knows; maybe it’s even primal, archetypal. Admittedly, the connection to Bourgeois scholar Mieke Bal, who points out that “anteriority falls apart: the work is greater than the subject who made it.” Life force, human struggle, what we fear and believe in are all part of the narrative depth and psychological intensity in these words, and as always, the dynamic connecting artists, curator, and viewers is its own living thing.
Curiously, and despite a generalized human fear of arachnids, it seems that wedding parties are able to ignore Maman’s disturbing atmosphere to stand between its giant legs for picture-taking, thus exhibiting an intrinsic identification with both fear and the faith behind that act of marraige. While no weddings took place within the dark and Gill installations, the psychological reference material exists in the exhibition title and many of the individual pieces.
Sculpture Magazine Â Â John K. Grande
|Shayne Dark’s recent show, “Tangle Wood”, was something of a play on and with the capacities of wood. Dark seizes on the entropic design process of nature’s life cycle to create sculptures that look like natural history unfolding in space. These carefully put together and brightly colored sculptures look as if they were caught in a moment in time, spatially and sculpturally. Last Stand (2008), a 12-foot-tall column, consists of wooden elements that vary in length. There is tension between the natural, flowing parts and their rationalized assembly into the whole.
Red Tide (2007), one of the largest installations in the show, forms a red scatter of tree roots and sections contained by two angular, upward tilting walls. The viewer can walk under these chasm-like walls to see the roots emerge at the other side. What makes these sculptures so vibrant is the pure ultra-matte color that covers their exteriors. The synthetic looking colors, add a certain mystical resonance, but this quality never reaches the level of eco-kitsch. Instead, the natural and the unnatural remain in balance. Dark’s work is rooted in a regional cultural experience, drawing on the environment where he lives. One senses that these works are less about sculpting per se, and more about understanding the inherent sculptural qualities already in the found wood and tree sections.
Referring to his childhood on the Ottawa River, Dark mentions that he was always witness to nature’s ongoing environmental and sculptural scenarios. He has continued to explore such places near his home in southeastern Ontario, finding, collecting, and assembling trees, branches, and roots into works that recall those experiences of nature. Coated with ultra-matte blue paint (usually used for theatre and set design), Dark’s trees are strangely surreal. Whatever the season his sculptures enliven the environment with an aura of life.
A natural response to evolution and environment, Tangle Wood (2008) is a monumental construction, reminiscent of Robert Morris’s early environmental indoor works but here the linear makes way for the chaos of entanglement. The work embodies an entirely sculptural quality of plasticity. We can walk around it and witness a shifting series of angles and sculptural relations between the various conjoined logs. Like Anish Kapoor, Dark draws on the appearance of things, and the illusions engendered by those appearances. We face ourselves in the illusions we encounter. In Tangle Wood, there are even emergent end-cut log sections that barely surface out of the floor. They suggest a continuity of form projecting through and beyond the cultural confines of the exhibition space.
Espace Sculpture Magazine Katrie Chagnon
|L’exposition de Shayne Dark, Tangle Wood, a clôturé sur une note sculptu- rale la saison estivale de la galerie Art Mûr, largement dominée par la peinture. Faisant état des dernières recherches de l’artiste sur les ques- tions d’espace et d’environnement, les trois installations présentées dans ce contexte renforcent l’idée d’un dialogue entre l’art, la nature et la vie, duquel se nourrit son travail depuis une vingtaine d’années. On y trouve, en effet, une nécessité de penser la continuité entre les espaces naturels et culturels, d’activer des échanges entre les lieux de vie, de création et d’exposition en dehors de toute hiérarchie ou de toute échelle de valeurs.Par une série de transferts séman- tiques, formels et spatiaux appliqués aux objets-pour la plupart puisés dans l’environnement-, Dark cherche à révéler la beauté intérieure des choses qui nous entourent dans le but de favoriser une contemplation directe du monde, sans la médiation de la sphère artistique. En ce sens, sa démarche s’inscrit dans un renouvel- lement de nos manières défaire et d’habiter les lieux.Dans la récente production présentée par Art Mûr, ces enjeux sont traités au moyen d’installations de très grand format. L’augmentation d’échelle des constructions témoigne d’une tendance à la « monumentalisa- tion », sans doute influencée par les projets d’art public menés simultané- ment par l’artiste. La stratégie utilisée relève du concept de « continuité spatiale», fondé sur l’activation d’une relation dynamique entre l’objet et son contexte architectural. Par un jeu entre les volumes et les vides, entre la forme, les dimensions, les matériaux et la couleur, le sculpteur mobilise l’espace en suscitant chez le specta- teur des impressions immédiates, se rapportant à des états physiques et psychologiques primaires.L’installation Red Tide (Marée rouge) consiste en une masse de bois protéiforme surgissant entre deux panneaux inclinés et appuyés sur les murs de la salle. Elle évoque un courant d’eau puissant ou la cristallisation d’une forme envahissante, oscillant entre sa beauté luxuriante et l’idée de danger propre à l’expé- rience du sublime. Cette qualité de présence émane de la couleur pure, conférant une matérialité nouvelle aux fragments d’arbres repêchés par l’artiste pour créer cette œuvre, dans un geste de « réanimation » qui caractérise l’ensemble de son processus créateur.
Imprégné d’une sensibilité allé- gorique—au sens où l’a définie Craig Owens, à partir des stratégies d’appropriation, de spécificité de site, d’impermanence, d’accumula- tion, de discursivité et d’hybridation dans les pratiques contemporaines’ -, l’art de Dark participe d’une volonté de renouer avec son univers immédiat, trouvant son impulsion primordiale dans la nature. L’artiste lui emprunte ses matériaux, repro- duit ses formes, en capture les rythmes, les nuances et les états tran- sitoires dans une attention particu- lière portée aux processus vitaux qu’elle contient. Ses oeuvres, crééesin situ, intègrent le caractère labile et éphémère du phénomène naturel en l’inscrivant au coeur même de leur élaboration plastique. De l’expérience directe et physique de la nature, où sont collectés les matériaux, à leur transformation par la couleur, en passant par une série de gestes d’accumulation, d’assemblage et de déconstruction contingents à l’espace et à la durée de l’exposition, les œuvres de Dark portent en elles l’allégorie d’un monde en constante mutation.
À l’instar de Red Tide, l’eau est le principal élément traité par Tangle Wood, une réalisation in situ de plus de sept mètres de diamètre qui fait référence au transport du bois sur les rivières à l’époque du développe- ment des industries du papier. Les bûches bleues semblent émerger du sol et s’y enfoncer comme dans un plan d’eau agité, se mesurant au corps du spectateur par leurs dimensions et les forces physiques qu’elles expriment. Différemment, la sculpture Last Stand fait figure de monument de manière plus tradition- nelle, tant sur le plan formel, par l’usage de la colonne, que sur le plan sémantique, à travers les questions du souvenir et de l’édification qui lui sont sous-jacentes. L’espace d’exposition devient alors le lieu de possibilité d’une vie de l’œuvre et d’une vie avec l’œuvre.
De fait, ce travail véhicule une vision du monde où les conditions d’existence de l’homme sont détermi- nées par les formes transitoires du temps présent. L’investissement des espaces publics, par l’artiste, témoigne d’une telle ouverture. Comme mentionné précédemment, le travail de grand format présenté dans cette exposition coïncide avec l’élaboration d’un projet d’intégration : une installa- tion gigantesque-sa plus imposante création à ce j o u r – q u i sera placée devant l’immeuble X-The Condominium, à Toronto. Composée de vingt- cinq éléments verticaux dont la hauteur varie de huit à quinze mètres, Double Vision pourra être perçue selon différents points de vue : de loin dans la ville, du haut des unités d’habitation, au niveau de la rue ou de l’intérieur de la structure. L’accent est mis sur la complexité de l’expérience perceptive (visuelle et physique) et sur son impact sur notre utilisation des lieux. Avec ce projet, Dark établit un dialogue intéressant entre la nature, l’environnement urbain et la vie quotidienne, renouvelant sa manière d’aborder les enjeux de perception spatiale. Il montre que tout est soumis au changement et que nous sommes partie prenante de cette réalité.
Avec ses nouvelles explorations, l’artiste est donc à la recherche d’une communication élémentaire et univer- selle entre les êtres et les milieux dans lesquels ils évoluent. C’est en travaillant les formes et les couleurs dans leurs qualités visuelles immanentes et leur tactilité qu’il se sert de l’art pour trans- former ces rapports. Dès lors, l’expé- rience du regard devient le lieu de déploiement d’une certaine profon- deur du reel.
Border Crossings Issue No. 100 Julia Dault
|Walking through “Here and gone,” Shayne Dark’s recent exhibition at the Edward Day Gallery in Toronto, is like walking through a hallucinatory world, a magic kingdom of giant, colourful forces of nature – flames, waterfalls, storm-things one doesn’t often get a chance to experience, at least not in waking life. The exhibition is made up of five separate pieces, objects that Dark interchangeably refers to as sculptures, installations and drawings, each using branches of ironwood, a very dense, hardwood that grows in abundance around Dark’s home, 45 kilometres north of Kingston, Ontario.The most stunning work of the show is Blizzard, a 16-foot-long and 10-foot-wide spray of branches protruding from the wall and painted white, though not just any old white, a popping white, a white so bright it verges on fluorescence. Visible from three sides, the tree limbs look like charging snowflakes, much like the hypnotic, mid-winter sensation felt while driving through a snowstorm after dark. In fact, it was while doing this very thing that he was struck with the overwhelming urge to translate the experience into a more permanent state.Like Blizzard’s exuberance, On Fire 2 is an enormous collection of bright red branches bound together by an industrial conduit, the only non-natural source material in the show. In fire-engine red, the work looks like an abandoned game of pick-up sticks or a bundle of static flames, playfully enormous and seemingly hot to the touch.
The final large piece of the exhibition is Descent, a deep blue waterfall-like structure made from 150-year-old split rail fences that Dark uses both for their aesthetic uniqueness, lured by their uneven edges and the irreproducible wear of time. Affixed to the wall, the blue “water” tumbles to the floor, splashing up in various wooden heights, creating an exciting pixilated deluge. Two peripheral pieces, In Due Time and In Due Time 2, are made from smaller ironwood branches arranged at various intervals on the wall. Delicate in comparison to their much larger counterparts, the pieces epitomize Dark’s use of the gallery as integral to his entire process, where the work’s final form isn’t fully determined until he is in situ, driving branches into their temporary resting places. The last time Blizzard was installed, for example, it was far more streamlined. In the end, this unpredictability of form effectively augments the act of installation to near-performance, breathing new life into the dead trees.
For almost 12 years now, Dark has been interested in playing out the cycle of birth, growth and death inside and outside gallery walls. First he “cherry-picks” his branches, spending days and sometimes weeks finding the perfect subjects to work with in his studio. With no real, fixed criteria for this ideal specimen, he waits to feel that deep-down tremor of rightness to signal success. Once found, he drags the branches inside, sands them down to their hearts- a convenient metaphor if ever there was one-and covers them with theatre paint to achieve the deep, saturated tones (rather than reflecting light, theatre paint absorbs it, making colours appear much richer). In the last stages, Dark assembles the branches based on rough sketches, and finally fits and secures them into their designated spaces.Now it is possible to see these fantastical sculptures as inquiries into a variety of timely subjects: the taming of nature, or the examinations of manufacturing and industrial processes; the plasticity of outside/inside and natural/artificial relationships; or the psychology of affected landscape and the need for escape, however fleeting. But while these are stimulating ways into the work, the real pleasure and success of the show lies less in heady, analytical interpretation and more in the primal and wordless reaction to the intensity of colour and the familiar – and at the same time unfamiliar-objects. Any enthusiastic descriptor glosses over the actual fact of Dark’s odd, mythical forest: This augmented form and colour supersede all worldly references. This is colour-filed in Broceliande, Minimalism through the Fire Swamp, Fauvist Elysian fields, a technicolour Walden Pond. With this forest, Dark is artist, industrialist, conservationist, manufacturer, historian and mythmaker all rolled into one.
Julia Dault is a New York based artist and writer.
Canadian Art Vol. 23 No. 1 John K. Grande
|Shayne Dark – Edward Day Gallery, TorontoShayne Dark’s sculptures can look like biotic designs. But for all their allusions to a natural world, to evolution and environment, they are wholly synthetic. After a stint at the Kiwi Sculpture Garden near Perth, Ontario, where it was exhibited as part of a summer sculpture event amid perennials, greenhouses and rambling forest paths, Dark’s Into the Blue made it’s way to Toronto, where it now stands in the Queen West courtyard that houses both the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art and the Edward Day Gallery.
Passersby and locals stop to look at this strange hybrid sculpture. It reaches up like a plant form magnified in scale by some biogenetic manipulation or freak event. Or it could be a special-effects prop for a scene from a sci-fi film like The day of the Triffids. Whatever the case may be, the sculpture offsets the city environment, and brings beauty and colour with expansive forms that draw their cues from nature. Long live plasticity, natural and synthetic!
The creation of Into the Blue involved collecting and assembling ironwood trees found near Dark’s home in Sydenham, Ontario. The antenna-like orientation of these beautiful undulating forms underscores the diversity inherent to all growth forms in nature, but also challenges the belief that manufacture need be exclusively human-generated to be artistically meaningful or significant. Coated with ultramatte blue paint (usually used for the theatre and set design), Dark’s trees are strangely surreal. Whatever the season, the sculpture enlivens the environment with it’s aura of life.
ESPACE Sculpture Magazine Gil McElroy
|Sculptor Shayne Dark, of Kingston, Ontario, has long made work that engages in a critique of the aesthetic forms that societal anxieties might assume. Though his sculpture generally tends toward the abstract and geometrical end of the aesthetic spectrum, it concomitantly articulates a response to pervasive social phenomena – no mean feat.Originally hailing from Moose Jaw, Dark has been exhibiting since the mid-1980s, showing in group and solo exhibitions in Canada, the United States, and Europe. In 2002, he exhibited at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., and in the summer of 2004 as one of three artists from Canada chosen to be part of an international exhibition in Athens, held in conjunction with the Summer Olympic Games. Much of his work of the past ten years – particularly in a series of pieces based on simple geometric forms comprised of interleaved pieces of wood – subtly grapples with the reactionary cultural and social unease exemplified all-too-often today by the rise of gated or closed communities, burgeoning homo- and xenophobia, and even the generalized societal fear of rampant, out-of-control criminality – often nourished by those with cultural axes to grind and socially conservative political agendas in mind.
By way of specific examples I would proffer the body of work that comprises Dark’s Habitat series. The pieces in this series, which he describes as “a direct response to nature,” are based upon the elemental employment of wooden sticks arranged in simple geometric configurations and the use of bright, primary pigments to colour the work. Donna’s Room (2000), for example, is a site-specific work comprising a mass of sticks – tree branches, really – that Dark painted a bright primary red and then stuffed into a stone building’s ground level window, completely filling it, so that only the their pointed ends stuck out-seemingly to ward off some potential threat, or evoking the “keep away” tension indicative of a defensive, self-protective posture. In the gallery-installed Resurrection (1999), similar sticks (here painted a primary yellow) are arranged on the floor so as to collectively emanate from a central primary focus, creating a half-hemisphere of bristling pieces of wood with more than slight resemblance to the marine creature that employs a similar configuration as its primary survival strategy-the sea urchin. Angel (2000) moves the work’s centre of gravity from the gallery floor to an elevated position just above it, so that the defensive mass of sticks (painted white) protrude outward equally above and below the central core of the piece (some doing double duty as the legs that keep the work elevated), and so defensively encapsulating the piece in the round.
With Paradise Gate(2000), Dark weaves a low, floor-mounted circle from small white sticks in a simple ring shape strongly evocative of the classic (albeit, stereotypical) image of settlers in the American west, “circling the wagons” to protect themselves from those whose land they they thought to usurp. And in this instant at least, Dark reveals that the defensive posture of his works in fact protect nothing, for within the bristling wall of sticks (which in truth one could easily step over), within the clean, spare geometry of the torus shape this work assumes, there is empty space. The proverbial emperor, it seems, has no clothes.
In yet other bodies of work, Dark’s sculptural exploration of anxiety is articulated within a contextualizing framework of enquiries into other conceptual and social phenomena. In Spire(2003), a series of twenty elongated spires, or enormous stylized spikes-four-sided wooden shapes clad in lead sheet rising to a point over two meters high-, the aesthetics of unease and edgy defensiveness is sublimated beneath the work’s powerful foreground references and allusions to geometry, architecture, and, of course, religion. But make no mistake: it lurks just beneath the surface, camouflaged by the clean geometric lines and angularity of the sculpture’s rigid metallic carapace.
With his newest body of work currently in the process of production, Dark goes right to the heart of the matter, to the inevitable consequences and outcome of all the anxiety modelled in his work-to the aftereffects of it all. Here, we are given to see a final aesthetic of violent crime, of gun culture – of murder, pure and simple. With the aid of a Pollock-Krasner Foundation grant, Dark has spent considerable time visiting police forensic laboratories in Toronto and Ottawa researching a series of murders that occurred in the city of Ottawa, going so far as to interview the police officers involved in the pertinent cases. Dark was even able to obtain permission to photograph the very artefacts of homicide: the bullets themselves, those spent objects the clean aerodynamics of which have been torn asunder by the force of murderous impact; metallic forms bent, split, and distorted into virtually unrecognizable objects.
The intention throughout was to explore a grisly societal sub-culture few of us are ever privy to know unless we have the great misfortune to experience its horrors firsthand. Dark was initially fascinated by the artifacts retrieved from crime scenes. “What struck me when I viewed these discharged bullets,” he wrote, “was the fact that they actually exploded into incredibly beautiful and lustrous shapes upon impact with human flesh and bone.”And so Body of Evidence, as this new body of work is called, begins with a sculptural manifestation assuming the form of a series of six freestanding works – all made of cast aluminum and each just shy of 100 centimetres in height-that are exact replicas of the distorted remnants of the spent bullets used in the commission of six separate homicides. One piece actually has a passing resemblance to a bullet as we typically imagine it, the original artefact having survived the impact in a relatively unscathed way and retained some resemblance to the original thing. But the others all teeter perilously close to an abstract reading, the only vestige of possible representation being a vaguely botanical resemblance to flowers in which jagged metal petals open to expose a circular core that is itself the only remnant of the original artefactual shape, of the bullet’s pre-murderous form.
The forms are contextualized by accompanying wall mounted images and text. The former comprise large-scale black and white photographs of the original bullets held by small chunks of clay alongside small rulers that highlight their diminutive size – out of all proportion with their massive societal impact. The latter element of handwritten text-graffiti, really-is scrawled across the images and spills onto the walls, spelling out some of the narratives that swirled about the events that lent significance to these artefacts in the first place.The material ranges from the indifferently factual (“bullets travel 3000 to 5000 feet per second”) to the more narrowly specific (“inquest into the murder of the children by their father recommended that the Department of Justice’s firearm registry be implemented without delay”).
With Body of Evidence,Shayne Dark doesn’t abandon us to a cloistered artistic consideration of homicide; we are not left alone in some uninvolved aesthetic isolation to merely consider the beauty of a sequence of abstract three-dimensional shapes. Instead, he makes larger contexts-social, political, cultural – overtly a part of the very shape of the sculptural.
Gil McElroy is a poet, independent curator, and critic. He is the author of Gravity & Grace: Selected Writings on Contemporary Canadian Art.