Warp drive

Dave Lane’s award-winning sculpture tests the bounds of physics and maps the space between stars

Dave Lane’s backyard tinkering is more extensive than the average Sacramento resident’s.

Dave Lane’s backyard tinkering is more extensive than the average Sacramento resident’s.

On a cool Saturday afternoon, Dave Lane was waiting for me on his front porch. Lane has a round face, with soft, kind eyes; glasses; and a red beard. He’s 47 but possesses a much younger man’s enthusiasm, and his head pokes forward a little when he talks.

Lane led me to his backyard, where old machinery is clumped in piles: wheels from a tractor, 6 feet in diameter; a tripod crane; flanges for an irrigation pipe; buoys; a gate valve; an impeller; and manhole covers. “I actually categorized all the abstract shapes I wanted to use in pieces: line, plane, box, disc, cylinder, sphere, spiral, cone,” Lane explained.

There are also two huge pumps. “They’re things that are generative, like a uterus, but in a mechanical sense,” Lane said. He’d started talking as soon as I’d arrived, as if there were too much pressure inside his body to contain all his ideas.

In conversation, Lane continually digresses, so that a simple question about the name of a machine part turns into a description of why the Hindenburg blew up (it was the reflected paint, not hydrogen), an aside about the Japanese sculptor Isamu Noguchi or a discussion of Beowulf.

These digressions often lead to new digressions. After talking about Grendel, the monster in Beowulf, Lane said, “I’ll take you on a little side story here, and this shows how art can work.” Another time, during a conversation about fear, he said, “I’m talking about something, but I’m not saying what I’m thinking. I’m thinking about LC curves in electricity.”

I pointed at a cylindrical object, a gas generator. “Look at that bird floating there,” Lane replied, noticing a hummingbird. Next-door, a man was on his roof with a leaf blower. “Joe’s up there,” Lane remarked. “He’s blowing the leaves off his roof because he’s going to paint.” Lane’s mind works like this, his attention constantly shifting.

“Things that go right by other people put a spark in Dave’s head,” said his wife, artist Lisa Van Handel-Lane. Asking Lane a question is like tapping a hyperlink on the Internet blindly—knowing only that Lane is going to riff about some element of the question delightedly, taking you far afield from where you thought you were headed.

The inside of Lane’s home reflects his curiosity about everything. Collections of antique apple and pear peelers, globes, jewelry boxes and rotary phones sit on shelves alongside models of boats, stacks of National Geographic magazines and files cataloging where he bought his materials and how much he paid. The walls are crowded with art: paintings by Lane’s wife and by friends, as well as drawings by Lane. The latter are maps and diagrams that explore Lane’s mind at work or show the relationship between his sculptures. One, on a cylinder, traces the major events in his four-year courtship of Lisa. Another maps his thoughts while driving around Merritt Island, in the Sacramento River Delta. Another shows the relationships among his sculptures, which are arranged on the page as a solar system, revealing relationships beyond the individual works.

Lane’s sculptures bring together the diverse materials in his yard and home—materials procured from farmers and antique stores up and down the West Coast at a cost of approximately $16,000 per year. Lately, he’s been looking for antique blowtorches; 24 sit on top of the kitchen cupboards. They’re a fraction of the 600 he plans to accumulate for a large-scale piece he calls “Dad, What’s It Like Inside the Sun?” He intends to enter it in the annual California State Fair fine-arts competition—this year if he can afford to buy the materials, or next year, or the year after.

Lane prefers to show his art at the California State Fair. “If you had a pretty good opening, you might get about 300 people,” he said. “At the state fair, I’m told they get 100,000 people.” He’s had impressive success there. In 1996, 1999 and 2001, he won the prestigious Award of Excellence. In 1997, 2000 and 2003, he won the Juror’s Award. And in 2003, he also won Best in Show.

Conceptually, “Dad, What’s It Like Inside the Sun?” sits in the middle of a solar system of sculptures Lane began envisioning around 1987. A large cylindrical gas tank will float in midair, with pressure gauges and clocks connected to it. The 600 antique blowtorches will stud the surface of the tank, facing outward at all angles. Lead melters will sit on a crown above the tank, and eye-like globes—each depicting a map of Lane’s personal experiences—will rise from those, too high up to see without a ladder.

“People are going to look at it and throw up,” Lane said. “There’s going to be too much. The problem you have with that, people will get overwhelmed. They can’t see all of it. If you put too much in for people to see, they can’t take it all in. You know what?”

You might have seen Dave Lane’s “The Main Difference Between the Truth and the Lie” at last summer’s California State Fair.

“What?” asked Lisa.

“You hit your breaking point. That means something is going to happen,” said Lane. “That’s the place where things can happen.”

Lane grew up in Modesto and Tuolumne. He majored in engineering at California State University, Fresno, specializing in surveying and photogrammetry, the making of measurements from photos. In college, he started drawing pictures of bad dreams. An art teacher saw one and suggested he make them three-dimensional, which led Lane to begin casting in bronze.

After college, Lane moved to Sacramento and took a job with the California Department of Water Resources, where he’s worked for 21 years. Currently, he maintains the department’s Web site and handles audiovisual setup, but he’s also worked in photogrammetry, levee enforcement and floodway reinforcement. Starting in 1983, he spent a decade taking art classes through the Open University at California State University, Sacramento, and he now devotes his weekends to making art.

“His wife refers to him as ‘the least lazy person she’s ever met,’ and I would concur with that,” said Stephen Kaltenbach, one of Lane’s professors at CSUS. “His primary strength is vision. And by that I mean not really the way he sees things, but the way he perceives things and thinks about things. And then a secondary thing would be his sense of composition—it’s very original. He makes really good choices when he puts art together. So, the pieces have both a visual power and a more subtle integrity.”

Kaltenbach continued, “I’m not certain about this, but it seems as though one of the questions that comes up [in Lane’s work] is how our self-involvement looks in light of eternity and the cosmic proportions—maybe the humor of it.”

Chris Daubert, curator of the Gregory Kondos Gallery at Sacramento City College, offered a complementary perspective—the idea that Lane is trying to grasp eternity itself. “By eternity, I mean the grand scope of all things,” Daubert explained. “Both elemental, down to the molecular level, and as large as the universe.”

Lane’s sculpture “Describing Space,” which won the Juror’s Award at the California State Fair in 1997, demonstrates this effort to understand the cosmic proportions of the universe. The piece resembles a giant tricycle. A long, curved handle turns the front wheel, and four metal buckets—seed spreaders—sit on rusted metal harrows, pointing to the sky. It looks like a vintage propulsion system from a planet of space travelers.

“I took the harrows and made a wall on the back and wrote the name of stars on the point of the harrows,” Lane said. The piece was designed to be interactive, moving while audience members charted the points of specific stars in space, so that the audience took part in representing space as a three-dimensional block.

“Now the next trick, because I don’t think of space as three-dimensional, was to try to find enough harrows to make a cube. What would be the possibility of taking a section of space described by a cube and putting that in motion?” Lane continued. “And on top of that, I wanted to make a cube inside a cube, to follow Carl Sagan’s idea of a tesseract, which is a four-dimensional object in three dimensions. So, maybe I could get seven [dimensions] or more. I haven’t built this piece yet.”

At the 2004 state fair, Lane won the Merit Award for “The Main Difference Between the Truth and the Lie.” This piece looks like an 11.5-foot-tall doodle of a face, with two huge saw-blade eyes partly overlapping and a comic derby—a curved piece of corrugated metal—resting on the head. The teeth around the edges of the 8-foot saw blades are labeled with the names of emotions, ordered sequentially to trace the way emotional states change. One sequence goes “distanced,” “confused,” “alone.” Another is “curious,” “interested,” “friendly.”

Pump handles, like steering wheels, rotate the blades, which also swing back and forth. Writings on the blades—written by Lane and by his friend, Lorie Brown—present arguments about social issues. Many deal with racial themes—there are quotes from Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison and Bell Hooks—while others consider issues of politics and power. Contemporary debates come up. “Why Martha Stewart and not Ken Lay?” reads one passage. Another reads, “Sometimes the lie will tell the greater truth.”

“At least in concept, I was thinking of ways to generate energy, or have arguments that reinforced other arguments, or arguments that cancel out other arguments,” Lane explained, referring to what happens when the blades rotate. “It’s a little hard to describe in words.”

Perhaps that’s why Lane makes art—because, for him, words and conventional visual expressions fail to capture the full dimension of reality. To Lane, an object or a thought brims with latent possibility. By bringing it forth through art, he creates an opportunity to transform perception, which creates an opportunity to transform reality.

“At the end of my life, I maybe will have a machine that shows how space is like,” Lane mused. “And then, maybe 50 years later, a kid will come along and say, ‘Oh, warp drive.’”