Alternate planes

Imagine you’re artist Jane Lackey, awarded a six-month residency at the prestigious Carmargo Foundation in the south of France — with your rooms overlooking the Mediterranean, a daily diet of Provençal fare fresh from the market, and your fellow residents a community of brilliant writers, art historians and philosophers. It’s wonderful while it lasts, but then somehow you have to get all your artwork back across the Atlantic. What’s a poor artist to do?

If you are Jane Lackey, you put those restrictions to use. Currently at Ferndale’s Lemberg Gallery is map room, a terrific show that demonstrates what Lackey did with the portability problem. She used the limitations of size and weight as guiding parameters on abstract maps she created about her time in France. She also let those strangers she came to know and admire enter her work as shifting elements of form.

Since the 1980s, mapping has become ubiquitous in the art world, and Lackey, head of the fibers department at Cranbrook Academy of Art, has been a lead explorer in that fertile territory.

Her earlier works charted interior systems of the body as topographical landscape by presenting, for example, veins as rivers or freeways. Then she went deeper inside, drawing from cells and DNA code to conceptually code aspects of her experience. This newest work at Lemberg is equally abstract, the body still the guide and measure in her decisions about spatial scale and flow. The show consists of two works, “panorama” and “survey,” and a legend that offers graphic descriptors for the physical space and the people that inspired movements within the map.

Her “panorama” is a continuous drawing on Japanese kozo paper, 42 segments that stretch 62 feet across three walls. It’s approximately the circumference of Lackey’s studio at Carmargo, where her work began. Anticipating the problems with overseas shipping, Lackey did a series of studies on lightweight pliable surfaces, such as thin cork, rubber and various papers, in her studio at Cranbrook before she left.

Deciding on gessoed, painted translucent paper, as well as office stickers and charting tape, she took her small stash of supplies to France without any idea of what to do with it. When she arrived at the residency and looked out at the unfettered view of mountains and sea, and was inspired by it and the full spectrum of ideas that filled the residency, she had her subject.

Lackey limited her choice of materials — from color to materials to paper size — and it’s an interesting contrast to the expansiveness of “panorama.” The skin-like quality of the kozo paper is exaggerated by the taupe paint layer that blocks the fibrous paper in patterns, at a distance reading like an orderly rash interrupted by black tape lines crawling across the paper. The lines turn at right angles only, yet through this restriction the artist has developed patterns that look like an architectural plan, computer circuit board, cyberspace communication maps or even conventional road grids.

These black lines move through layers of surface paint that’s constrained to simple geometry — overlapping circles, rectangles, squares. In the far left sections on the back wall, the amount of black she uses shrinks to three flower-like quadrangle forms and tiny half-moon blips that float sparingly across the background. Then the path re-emerges, gathers in density and turns — a dynamic network of relationships before the background space opens up again.

The most constant and playful element of the work is at the bottom, where a vertically stitched red line comes in and out of the paper. The stray ends of thread make the lines seem like a figure, with dancing legs that have no intention of carrying the load, just kicking up its heels below the ground plane.

The other piece, “survey,” has been divided into 14 works with tight parameters — minimal color, shape, line, surface, narrative — so that any variants seem like exaggerations. These floating works on paper share material qualities of “panorama,” but are self-contained maps of daily observations and discussions with those in the Carmargo community.

While “panorama” maps physical wandering through space, “survey” maps the mental gamboling of Lackey’s human interactions. The piece also demands a close kind of seeing, where a soft feathery edge of paper, becoming matted and stiff, takes on the nuance and intimacy of a lover examining the fine hairs on a minute patch of skin.

The subtlety of light in both works is breathtaking, with a glow coming through the paper that makes deciphering positive and negative space a delicious mystery with no fixed conclusion. These works change as the viewer moves and the sun enters the room. This subtle shift in position — three inches to the left or right — shows how the artist’s reductive methodology opens up visual dimensions through focused attention.

Although Lackey designed restrictions for herself in making the work, the final effect doesn’t embody a condition of diminishing. Instead, it opens the possibility for a chorus of angels dancing on the head of a pin.


Through Oct. 15, at Lemberg Gallery, 23241 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-591-6623.


See Also:

Lofty goals
by Gerry Craig

Gerry Craig writes about art locally and nationally. Send comments to [email protected]
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