Shayne Dark. Yes, it’s his real name, and yes, it’s a great name for an artist. Although it can encourage some awful writing, like the too-sprightly opener by someone named Meaghan Wray, in her Shayne Dark review in the Queen’s Journal (a student newspaper from Queen’s University), to whit: “Unlike the artist’s surname, his exhibit Critical Mass is anything but gloomy.”

The anything but gloomy Critical Mass, an exhibition of recent sculptures by the Kingston-based Dark, was organized by the Art Gallery of Peterborough and curated by poet and critic Gil McElroy. It has been touring throughout Canada on a five venue schedule since its first mounting at the Musee des beaux-arts de Sherbrooke in October 2011, and its appearance at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in Kingston early last summer (June 22-November 3, 2013) marked its final stop.

Dark is an inventive wielder of metaphors and a quick man with an analogy. Indeed his best work proceeds directly from his opening that door that reveals to the viewer those resemblances between what Dark has physically devised, and what those resemblances can now proceed to suggest. In the language of well-worn, conventionalized art-critical parlance, this dualism can be seen—as the Agnes Etherington would have it in its press release—as playing on “the prevailing distinction between representation and abstraction.”

One of the works in Critical Mass, for example—shown at the Peterborough Art Gallery and the Glenbow Museum (though not at the Agnes Etherington)— is a sixteen foot spray of white-painted sticks that, having been gathered to a central, core-like point on the gallery wall, then appear to explode centrifugally outwards, horizontally, towards the viewer. The piece is cunningly titled Blizzard.

I saw Blizzard a few years ago at the Edward Day Gallery in Toronto. I thought it was the best thing Dark had done. And I thought so, I feel sure, mostly because it offered such an easily enjoyable gift of pre-assigned meaning. The work was positively exuberant with its own program: white sticks coming at you like snow coming at the windshield of your car as you hurtle through a whiteout.

Blizzard isn’t only a sculpture. It’s a shard of stagecraft. An eye-blink of memory. A configuring of shared experience. It’s a highly entertaining work and, by dint of its being so pleasing, is thus almost inevitably positioned close to the perilous realm of sentimentality.

All of Dark’s sculptures tend to work like this. People love them because they look like things.

For example, among the series of five works called Critical Mass (three red pieces, two blue ones), the three red ones—scaled like two parents and a child—have generated fanciful imagistic equivalents ranging from spiders to (and I’m afraid I am guilty of this one) “the Martian spaceships in the 1953 film of War of the Worlds.” This last was from my article called “Shayne Dark: Into the Woods,” for Kingston Life magazine. Calling them Martian walkers, I suggested—with some abashment at my own boyishness—“just speaks to the astonishing effects Dark can elicit from a few lengths of twisted tree.”

For that is what they are: gangly limbs of apple trees, inverted so that the upward-thrusting branches are now spindly “legs,” the whole configuration painted with that ultra-saturated, chromatically dense, non-fade theatre paint the artist favours (an eyeball- searing red, in the case).

Yes, they inevitably evoke other emblematic works in the modernist canon: they might be nubby, “organic” versions of Calder’s stabiles. Or they might be smaller, non-threatening versions of Louise Bourgeoise’s daunting Mother-Spider.

But at the same time, as they seduce you with their easily acquired programmatic readings, with their inescapable morphological suggestibility, the works also lead you back to meditations upon the ways, in Dark’s work, that nature and artifice are shown both to coalesce or, alternately, to pull away from one another.

The materials Shayne Dark uses, he mostly harvests from his own property near Kingston. Much of his work is fabricated from the smooth, dense branches of the Ironwood trees that grow near him. His oxymoronic use of them is inherent right within their name—“iron” + “wood” (the cooked and the raw). Dark’s Ironwood works stand at some cross-over, pivotal point between what is entirely natural, and what is an assisted, cajoled, tweaked, vectored, reformatted form of nature.

The Critical Mass “spiders” may well suggest creaturedom, but they also suggest transformation, re-presentation. They are essentially sculptural middlemen, located between untrammelled nature and a nature now finessed by the artist into a different, mythopoeic kind of being. And the bright coatings of colour Dark applies to them is really a sort of aestheticizing guarantee that the works will not fall back again into the state of grace of which they partook when they were merely nature.

There are two works, however, in Critical Mass that attempt to evade or extend the sometimes too easy nature-nurture duality of many of Dark’s pieces, and it might be useful to look briefly at them.

One is a painted Ironwood work called Force of Nature. Like the spidery, creaturely, red or blue pieces making up Critical Mass #1, #2, #3 and #4, Force of Nature is a tangle of blue-painted branches that, rather than standing on the floor, clings to the galley wall—like a cerulean centipede. The gravitational change—from floor-stander to wall-walker—is a profound change. For now the Force of Nature work immediately loses some of its easy animality, becoming partly a picture instead. Now possessing volume rather than mass, the thing has the vitality of nature, but few of its performative aspects.

And with Windfall, Dark offers the unadorned, almost unmediated act of choice-as object. You gaze upon a pile of raw-looking tree roots (they are apple tree roots, salvaged from an old orchard)—they might be boles, gnarlings, warts, arboreal excrescences of some kind—and they look like bodily things: like giant knuckles, calcified hearts, skulls. Skulls mostly. You can see Hamlet reaching for one, contemplating it, and thinking about (alas!) poor Yorick.

A pile of skin-coloured, bone-like, skull-like objects cannot but suggest a massing of the aggregate dead— in archaeological digs, in catacombs, in concentration camps, in mass graves of every kind. What is impressive about the piece (the piece exists in two configurations: a pile and a suspension) is that it radiates its analogical meanings so directly, without benefit of the decorative filter usually provided by Dark’s screaming colour. Dark’s Windfall apple-root-skulls-hearts are (at last) preordained by their own qualities, not prevaricated by colour and the distractions of style. 

The Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Kingston
June 22—November 3, 2013