All Collection of the Artist
Critical Mass: Sculpture by Shayne Dark
Glenbow Museum, Calgary
July 14 – September 3, 2012
By Jennifer McVeigh
With faint echoes of historic architectural space, the entrance to Ontario artist Shayne Dark’s exhibition is marked by what almost could be a grand-scale chandelier. But this structure hangs too close to the ground, and the objects gathered on wires are not crystals, but something more ambivalent. From one angle, they are bleached skulls, making this a horrifying trophy. From another, they are human hearts – strong, rounded muscles with arteries sprouting from the top. On closer inspection, they are tree roots, stripped and sanded almost beyond recognition.
The exhibition catalogue explains Windfall (2010-2011) contains roots of apple trees salvaged from an orchard destroyed in the 1950s. The visual correlation between the circulatory system of a tree and a human is remarkable. It invites viewers to contemplate our uneasy relationship with the natural world. We are an inextricable, physical part of it, but it’s a darker and more complicated realm than we may care to consider.
All the exhibition’s sculptures sit at the same unnerving juncture – part of the natural environment, but removed from it. Painted with intense, saturated colours and carefully lit, they are otherworldly, yet deeply familiar. The works do not deal in cultural or academic references, but something more basic. Meaning is not interpreted intellectually, but felt on a physical and instinctual level.
Just beyond Windfall, are three tall figures, each supported by four or five long, spindly limbs. They bear some resemblance to daddy longlegs insects, but then none at all. Painted with bright red, non-reflective pigment, Critical Mass #1, #2 and #3 are fluid creatures. One stands taller and thinner, while the second is wider and sturdier. The third is hunched over, as if it might be wounded or sick. Grouped around Windfall, but at some distance from it, there is a sense of community. Are they gathered in study? In worship? In fear?
To one side, nine blue objects are placed on the floor in a precise grid. The label indicates that Relics (2011) is made from apple wood and paint, but the shape and texture of these materials are not readily apparent. Completely saturated with deep blue colour and lit with blue light, they seem an otherworldly substance that gleams from within, some valuable commodity carefully measured and preserved.
On the far side of the room, Blizzard (2006) effectively captures energy and movement. Thin, white, twisting ironwood limbs explode from a central point. Lit from the outside, the branches fade into shadow near the centre, drawing the eye deeper into the vortex. The effect is like watching fireworks or driving through a snowstorm at night.
Out on a Limb (2010) wriggles uncomfortably into the subconscious. It appears to emerge from within the wall, and is constructed from a tree-limb sliced, then re-strung to curve slightly, like a snake. Again, an instinctive response makes the viewer wary of this form, no matter how benign. Out on a Limb (Blue), on the other hand, is a relatively straight piece of wood placed at an angle, as if to support the gallery wall. It’s an anomaly in Dark’s world, where everything seems to be something else. Perhaps this conventional reference to timber as construction material is the artist’s way of reminding us that the natural world surrounds us as part of buildings and furniture.
Critical Mass, organized by the Art Gallery of Peterborough, is subtle and uneasy, but highly evocative. Using his experience building theatrical sets, Dark has assembled simple forms that allow myriad narratives, transforming the gallery into a dark and elemental space where myth and legend reside.