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Sculptural Machines

Made up of once-useful tools, Lawrence Fane's work now only hints at functionality.


The sculpture of Lawrence Fane is an example of this process in reverse. His archaic-appearing yet contemporary artifacts hint of history, use, invention and labor, but never rise past their "art for art's sake" immobility. Immediately, a viewer takes in their form, surface and design, and then afterwards cogitates their possible function beyond the gallery walls.

"Machines of the Mind" is a small, 12-piece exhibition of Fane's sculptures currently on display at the University of Richmond's Marsh Art Gallery. Hailing from New York, Fane creates sculptural machines that hint at a function beyond purely aesthetic value. Some have wheels, others cranks, and all have titles that further suggest a use ("Barrel," "Filter" and "Mantle," for example). They also imply age, as if they were uncovered and excavated from a 19th-century historical site. Fane creates a patina on his objects through staining, chiseling, polychroming and bronzing his surfaces; dents are carved in wood; iridescent sheens are coated on bronze; and wood is stained in a mottled, archaic pattern. With these surfaces and the primordial shapes that are manifested, Fane's sculpture can be seen as a marriage between technical sophistication and a certain Flintstone's prehistoric sensibility.

All the pieces imply function through their title and form. "Table," for example, is made of wood and has 2-1/2 legs with a rounded, narrow top. As a functioning table, it wouldn't do well — objects would roll right off. Similarly, "Column" is made of a cylinder of bent wood with a steel ball inserted in its top. Far from being capable of holding up a roof, this column defies gravity and sways away from verticality.

A particularly beautiful and intriguing work is "Quarry Piece #3." Made of welded steel, this work is mounted to the wall, further denying its functional value. On the wall, however, the viewer is forced to reevaluate how these objects are seen. One feels less compelled to figure out what they do and more interested in looking at how the forms interconnect and occupy the gallery space around them.

Lawrence Fane's carefully composed sculptures are reminiscent of the works of sculptor Martin Puryear in their consummate craftsmanship and celebration of natural materials. As the gallery's exhibition label describes, "…Fane's works evoke humanized machines that seem to merge the beauty and power of the mechanical with that of natural forms."

If we return now to Belle Isle, the historical shrapnel of iron and concrete has a real patina that hasn't been re-created, and real dents and notches that speak of years of use and abuse. Nonetheless, these neglected pieces have an uncanny connection to Fane's delicate, protected ones. The former were created solely for function, the latter purely for form. Together, the merging of invention, design and nature easily describes both these machines, whether created from the blacksmith's hand or the present-day artist's mind. S

"Machines of the Mind: Sculpture by Lawrence Fane" will remain on view through June 29th at the Marsh Art Gallery, in the University of Richmond's Modlin Center.

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