Culture | Sickly Sweet

Cal Lane refashions steel oil drums into incisive environmental art

Sweet Crude, artist Cal Lane’s latest exhibition, derives its name from one of the world’s most sought-after energy sources, petroleum oil. Of course, oil is involved in the current production processes of many widely used items. From the food we eat to the cars we drive, and everything in between, the substance is integral to modern consumer culture and the affluent lifestyle that comes with it. As levels of industrialization and consumerism continue to increase globally, and oil reserves simultaneously begin an irreversible decline, the scarcity of this non-renewable resource is becoming an unavoidable reality.

Though alternatives to oil energy exist, unless world leaders are willing to implement a viable substitute on a mass scale, oil scarcity will likely lead to conflict in the future. In fact, it already has – both the first Gulf War and the current conflict in Iraq lend evidence to this claim and suggest that the clash over oil will only become more pressing as time goes on.

These issues are at the centre of Lane’s exhibit, not only because of the subject matter she addresses, but also through her unconventional choice of medium. By using an oxy-acetylene torch and a plasma cutter, Lane was able to carve a series of intricate images into steel oil drums of varying sizes. While some of her pieces are flattened into two-dimensional objects and then mounted on the walls of the gallery, others retain their original three-dimensional form, and are displayed as large sculptures throughout the gallery’s space. That these works of art are constructed from repurposed oil drums is clearly recognizable, a fact that heavily impacts the viewer’s perception of the exhibit.

“As a material, I love how steel can be manipulated. As a metaphor, I love how the material relates to the industrial, functional, structural,” Lane says, in describing her affinity for the medium. “It’s a material of strength and power and masculinity,” she continues. “The material itself carries a lot in the way of symbols… . I love to work with and against these symbols when altering objects.”

Lane’s background clearly fostered her interest in the use of everyday objects as media. Having been discouraged by her parents from becoming an artist earlier in life, she worked in a series of “practical” trades, from hairdressing to welding, before eventually attending art school in her late twenties. “Having this life of trying everything, struggling to figure out where I fit in, was what influenced the work I made,” she says.

The images present in her pieces are varied, but the concept of contrast forms a major theme throughout Lane’s work. The artist acknowledges the use of opposing ideas in her art, saying, “I like to work with contrasts, both as a way to create a balance and a fight; there is always another side to a story, a visual devil’s advocate.”

In some parts of Sweet Crude, the social commentary is clear, as with the rows upon rows of houses and car-garages depicted in “Sprawl” and “Cul-de-sac Column.” Other works depict more benign imagery: floral patterns, curving topographical lines, and natural scenes.

Several of Lane’s pieces involve large maps of the world carved out of the steel of the oil drums, with clearly discernable continents and oceans laying on grid-like backdrops. Other images – animals, vehicles, and mythological creatures, among others – are scattered over the maps. The content presented here is suggestive of multiple struggles: between strong and fragile, masculine and feminine; between practical and aesthetic, and between ancient and modern ideas.

Lane lays out these struggles without providing a straightforward narrative about the conflicts in question. These images are presented in a manner that reflects their complicated nature, provoking thought in the viewer. A number of distinct ideas are blended together in the works Lane presents in Sweet Crude; the work is sure to raise questions about oil dependence that are important for all to consider.

*Sweet Crude is on display through October 31 at Art Mur (5826 St. Hubert). *