Artis Lane, “New Woman Fragment”



We regret that the exhibition planned to open this month has suffered a last minute cancellation.  We present the Preview article in the interest of documenting the work of this important Los Angeles-based artist.--Ed.


Watts Towers Art Center, South Los Angeles

by Bill Lasarow



Now 88, Canadian native Artis Lane has spent the second half of her life working in Los Angeles. Her career has followed a reasonably successful trajectory, but it must be said that her generation of African American artists were mostly forced to build their reputation and marketed their work on the outskirts of art’s mainstream. There was, basically, Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden. There were no Mark Bradfords or Kori Newkirks, no Mickalene Thomases or Kara Walkers. Mainstream galleries have, to their shame, never particularly warmed to an aesthetic that straddled conventional realism (too bland) and social and metaphysical idealism (too aspirational).




Artis Lane, “New Woman Fragment,” 1989, bronze, ceramic shell, resin, wire and steel base, 73 x 28 x 12”; and “New Woman,” 1989, bronze with steel base, 73 x 28 x 12”.



Thus it is that Artis Lane has thrived for decades by attracting celebrity portrait and numerous high-visibility public sculpture commissions, but remained relatively ghettoized by an exhibition history mainly (but hardly exclusively) limited to regional public venues. Lane is thus venerated primarily within academic, political and entertainment industry communities that relate to the accessibility of her themes of moral heroism and spiritual essence. So it has been since her student days at the Cranbrook Academy and her early years in Detroit, where she attracted the attention of a circle of prominent citizen-collectors while still in her twenties.


An exhibition such as “Motherdust,” surveying the artist’s career with an emphasis on the decade of the 90s, makes it clear that a fair assessment must take into account both a fair critique of her skills as a figurative artist, the formal center of her practice, and an appreciation for her aesthetic mission, which boasts a convincing moral gravity. There are three primary, and clearly divided components to Lane’s work, each of which is represented here: The metaphysical, the social and portraiture.


Images of “New Woman” and “Emerging First Man” form the premises on which Lane’s body of work rests. These images feed quite deliberately on Leonardo da Vinci’s familiar “Vitruvian Man.”  The figures, lean and athletic, walk a narrow line to express the connection between divine spirit and material being. She leaves fragments of the plaster casting mold on some versions of these and other sculptures as an allusion to the birthing process, the afterbirth dropping away to suggest that the bronze human figure is a revelatory product of the transcendent.


The moral tone of her sculpture of "Rosa Parks Going Up the Stairs" (evocative of the bus of course, but also symbolic of social and spiritual ascendance; it must be noted that Lane and Parks were close friends for decades), a bust of Sojourner Truth or one of President Obama are fundamentally optimistic. If rooted in her primary belief in a spiritual essence, that essence imbues strength in the human struggle for social equity and political rights. The moral certainty teeters between a genuinely original form of expressionism based on resolve and a too earthbound form of public rhetoric that seeks to uplift. She injects Auguste Rodin’s gestural realism squarely into the American struggle for individual and civil rights.


I cannot embrace Lane’s portrait commission or two-dimensional work to the same degree unfortunately. The confidence conveyed in three-dimensions is too tightly wound on paper and canvas. There is an underlying detachment, even ambivalence that relegates much of this work to the level of studies. When she moves to clay she loosens up so as to become receptive to the interplay of individuality and essence. It is here that she lays claim to her process. When she takes us on a journey from the meta-soul to the human creature we get to know not only the subject and the artist better. We gain insight to our selves.