Huge installation poses questions about God, humanity, universe

“This is science,” said Dave Lane, carefully lining up sugar packets in orderly rows on top of a table at Wise Sons Deli in the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Then he swiftly jumbled them with his hands, creating a messy pile of packets. “This is art.”

Dave Lane photo/stephanie smith

With an unusual career that has spanned the fields of mapmaking, water management and art, Lane has a finely tuned interest in how art and science intersect. His artwork — he specializes in large metal sculptures made with found materials — reaches into the cosmos to explore humanity’s place in the universe and the nature of our relationship with God.

Now a new piece by Lane has been installed in a prominent location at the San Francisco museum. “Lamp of the Covenant” is a 90-foot-long sculpture set in the rafters inside the building’s entrance. The four metal sections of the piece are ornamented with lights, globes, animal figurines and carved edges designed to symbolize Hebrew letters.

The work is meant to evoke time, space and the dialogue between man and God, Lane explained.

“I want to ask about the nature of the universe, and why is it so big and my mind is so small,” said Lane, 57. “I’m a practical person, but I have impossibly difficult visions.”

Though Lane has been making art for more than 30 years, this sculpture is his first public commission. He operates outside of the commercial art world, showing pieces at the California State Fair rather than selling work in private galleries. He began entering his sculptures in the fair’s art show in 1996, and his work has appeared there every year since. His sculptures have repeatedly won recognition at the fair, including two best of show awards.

Lane has used his income from his career with the California Department of Water Resources  (he retired two years ago) to fund the sculptures he builds in his home studio and backyard. His creations typically cost him about $8,000 in materials alone. His pieces include what he describes as a machine to make brains run faster and a particle accelerator for ideas.

Lane embraces the term “outsider artist” and is suspicious of the commodification of the art world.

Renny Pritikin, the CJM’s chief curator, first saw Lane’s work in a solo show at Sacramento City College. Lane lives in Sacramento and was invited to display his work by Chris Daubert, a member of the art faculty, whom Lane had met when Daubert was a judge at the California State Fair in the late 1990s.

“Lamp of the Covenant” uses globes, light bulbs, antique tools (such as apple peelers and blow torches) and other objects to explore the relationship between man and God. photo/johnna arnold

“I was slack-jawed and blown against the wall by this piece called ‘Heart of Gold,’ ” said Pritikin, who called the show one of the five most important of his career. “I knew I wanted to do a show with him.”

Pritikin curated a solo show for Lane at the Nelson Gallery at U.C. Davis in 2009, where he was director. When Pritikin came to the CJM last year, one of his first goals was to find a large art piece for the lobby that could hang from the ceiling. He approached Lane about commissioning a chandelier-type piece, which Lane had done previously.

“I knew he was a religious person, and when I talked to him about this, he clearly understood it and respected it,” Pritikin said.

Lane is Christian, though, “The guy that I worship as God happened to be a rabbi,” he said, alluding to Jesus. His work examines the role of God as creator; “Lamp of the Covenant” maps the relationship between man and God on a universal scale. The globes affixed to the sculpture between the lights are meant to represent other planets; Lane bought them at antique stores on a road trip through the Central Valley and even drew imagined otherworldly geography on some of their surfaces.

The first three sections of the sculpture have carved edges that are meant to evoke Hebrew letters; that, Lane said, represents man calling out to God. In the fourth section, the edges are carved into the shapes that represent God’s answers — a cloud on one end, a foot on another — God putting his foot down, Lane explained.

Pritikin believes the piece evokes strong Jewish themes.

“In creation the first thing was ‘Let there be light,’” Pritikin said. “And then the covenant is one of the central things that Judaism has discussed and debated from the beginning: What is the proper relationship between man and God?”

Lane began designing “Lamp of the Covenant” last June, constructing it in sections in his backyard. It took a week to install it in the museum’s entrance, and though Pritikin originally conceived of it as a yearlong exhibit, he says its tenure is open-ended.

For his part, Lane said he isn’t able to look objectively at the piece he has spent so much time working on.

“I don’t know if this is good,” Lane said. “They told me it was good.”

Lamp of the Covenant: Dave Lane from The Contemporary Jewish Museum on Vimeo.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.