The Theater of Doubt:
The Sculpture of Lynden Cline
By Twylene Moyer, managing editor of SCULPTURE magazine, art historian, lecturer, and writer who has published numerous articles on contemporary art.
People who look for symbolic meanings fail to grasp the inherent poetry and mystery of the image. No doubt they sense this mystery, but they wish to get rid of it. They are afraid. By asking "What does this mean?" they express a wish that everything be understandable. But if one does not reject the mystery, one has quite a different response. One asks other things.
– René Magritte
Lynden Cline's sculptures inhabit an uncanny realm of ambiguity. Masquerading behind a cloak of benign domesticity, they take on the forms of everyday objects whose comfortable familiarity lulls the unsuspecting into daydream tales of the ordinary. We think we know this world. A little girl's Sunday school purse, charming toy-sized chairs and beds, tree-forms that resemble flower arrangements, tables that look as though they could adorn an entrance hall – for the unwary, these icons instinctively wrap the mind in sheltering images of intimacy, the idealized and nostalgic warmth of home and family. Cline's dissembling objects so closely mirror life's surface veneer that we scarcely notice the troubling details that creep out from the shadows, the anachronisms and disjunctions that gnaw away at the illusion of stability. We don't want to see them. We don't want to think that the perfect image is an empty lie.
But the subtle aberrations persist, clutching at the corners of the unconscious, slowly insinuating themselves into our perception. When we finally and fully see them for what they are, it is too late to withdraw back into objective normalcy. The very touchstones of reality, the things we cling to for reassurance in a brittle, uncertain world, have been spirited away, transformed into bizarre doppelgangers that prey on our insecurities.
A forest of tiny beds rises from the ground, stretching into sharply spiked towers over our heads, closing in with a prison of impossibly elongated, stilt-like legs. We cannot climb into them, cannot hide under them. Brambles infest the abandoned hall table, spreading tangled confusion and decay. They thrive without visible source or clear explanation – escaped, maybe released, from the blackness of an empty box. The discarded, useless lid lies overturned below, bored through with sinister holes. The same cut-outs (maybe we first thought of them as decoration), pierce the girl's purse, which we only now notice gapes open at the sides. What should be nothing more than a housing for childhood's pretend treasures no longer conceals, no longer protects. If we imagined the relics of angelic innocence safely stored inside, all sweetness and sunlight, we were mistaken in our recollection. Whatever the purse harbored has been unleashed, and, like the plagues set loose from Pandora's box, the disquiet and fear bred of that unknown cannot be forced back into the container: instead, they grow, infecting the mental foundations that establish us in the world.
House and home form the locus of psychological security and individual identity. More than a literal shelter, the house is our first universe – a cradle of comfort and well-being, a maternal refuge against encroaching nightmares. It instills in us a sense of belonging, and, at the same time, that space, the objects and people in it, constitutes our first glimpse of the self. We know who we are based on these early interactions. As adults, we continue to invest the material objects of this space with a special significance. Saturated with memory and illuminated by time, these springboards for childish fantasy still contain a wealth of feeling and experience. We rely on them to anchor us. But what if the space of the house, remembered as a kind of primordial dream space, doesn't really belong to us? What if we don't belong to it? Rather than a wellspring of security, the domestic sphere becomes a rootless source of anxiety.
Cline guts the implied promise of that dream space, exposing its dark recesses and hidden crevices. Walls are laid bare and reduced to cages, voids open in floors, lamps emit a harsh, naked light, stairs lead into an abyss of nothingness, ladders and doorways fail to offer passage. The cradle itself is no more than a barred wasteland of rejection, its barren, desiccated soil incapable of nurture. No matter which way we turn, our expectations are thwarted, our need to find solid ground and clear rules frustrated. The terrain keeps shifting, denying all sanctuary.
Objects, even art objects, are not supposed to behave like this. They occupy a defined position in the world. But Cline's sculptures break free of their logical moorings, expanding and contracting before our eyes: now drawing us into their sphere, now encroaching into our physical reality. More than what they appear to be, they hold us in thrall to what lies behind them. The distinction between inner imaginings and outer appearances has broken down. Exiled from the adult parameters of ordinary appearances, with its fragile assurances that the one-dimensional plane we typically inhabit is the sum total of human experience, we have crossed back into childhood. Not the storybook version we like to tell ourselves – a rose-colored narcotic – but a fractured fairy tale populated with the gothic latencies of the imagination. Strip away the illusion and we admit the shadow world, staring face to face with a haunting doubt. Here, the mind once again works its frightening magic on the inanimate world around us, and the bottom drops out from beneath our carefully constructed artifices.
Remember and feel those eerie moments of loneliness when all the comforts of home failed, when the unseen, the unknown, broke through its barriers and took form: tree branches – we know they are nothing more than shadows swaying in the wind – grope their spectral fingers toward us in the dark; the pile of clothes thrown on a chair gathers shape and mass; our hands searching for a crayon under the radiator touch something warm and fleshy. Reliving these moments, the cozy platitudes of our lives vanish, replaced by a numbing absence that, try as we might to suppress it with routine and the daily grind of interaction, lingers on to penetrate our carefully crafted armor. We see that hollow shell now, a sarcophagus molded around the flame of inner life. Confronted with its sculptural reality, we need to consider which is the true prison: the intimations of the imagination, freely roaming between the hard facts of the physical world and the soft, pliable images we carry inside, or the defensive cages we choose to build around ourselves, confining our experience to the mundane, too weak to leave the drab dependability of appearances.
Reduced to the barest essentials of form, Cline's tableaux and objects take a conceptual approach to image-making. They may closely approximate their sources in the phenomenal world, but their realism generates from within the viewer's mind. Each chair, bed, window, or tree, every poetic of objects, is an artifact or imprint that embodies an inner realization. Their power to affect, to probe deep into the psyche, stems from their archetypal simplicity. Gray and blackened steel and ebonized wood form a screen on which each individual projects his or her own personal demons. The sculptures themselves become mutable shadows, provoking and responding to a vertiginous stream of associations. The images we conjure around and through them are an essential part of our mental complexity, living organisms that carry on within us, darkly, whether we acknowledge them or not.
For Cline herself, the sculptures serve a dual purpose: they bring forth and exorcise a personal narrative of adoption, encoding a past both real and desired, re-enacting and altering it, coming to terms with its influence over her present. This much she tells us. Of course, we want to know more. Our natural inclination, almost a defense mechanism, is to uncover the meaning behind these silent and disturbing enigmas, to dissect them with the blade of biography, paring away until we have fully exposed, analyzed, and understood every fragmentary detail from beginning to end. We need to understand them because they frighten us: if we can locate an exact meaning in the artist's life then we won't have to look too closely at ourselves. But the specific drama of emotional upheaval and painful introspection that lies behind the work belongs to the artist alone: her secrets remain intact. In fact, after arranging the stage, Cline erases herself from the finished works, leaving behind an impersonal, detached neutrality. The important work – the delving into the self – lies only in the making. Steel and wood betray no trace of her hand. The forms are anonymous, giving only just enough information, waiting for us to complete them however we will.
The story may begin with Cline, but its visual embodiment plays out within each individual viewer. She provides an allusive framework, a mysterious, creative space of metamorphoses reinforced by her riddle-like titles, then allows us to roam freely among her doll-house miniatures and looming, distorted furnishings. As memory and imagination take hold, dragging us deeper and deeper into the associative spiral, we slowly realize that this theater of the mind is as much our creation as that of the artist.
Cline's work opens the inner space and reveals its existence. It doesn't matter what the specific contents are; they will be different for each of us. Her self-exploration becomes the catalyst triggering our own explorations. Each of us threads a path through this borderland between resonant image and the mind's reverberations. Loss, fear, rejection, nostalgia – we inflect our descriptions of Cline's works with ourselves, our own internalizations of the unknown. It is difficult terrain. We don't mind the occasional voyeuristic frisson of existential terror, as long as it remains safely confined to the pages of book, locked in the frame of a painting or in someone else's life. Yet with the fear comes wonder, a widening of possibilities. What is the point of a life hobbled by limitation, reigned in by the narrow strictures of safety and confined to the certainties we believe that we know? Rainer Maria Rilke, who sensitively and courageously celebrated the deep-seated uncertainties at our core, argues in favor of intensity: "Works of art always spring from those who have faced the danger, gone to the very end of an experience, to the point beyond which no human being can go. The further one dares to go... the more personal, the more unique a life becomes." The danger doesn't have to be dramatic or literal; it consists simply in moving beyond the surface flow of life and objects, in having the courage to look at what lies within and beneath. When we really live a poetic image of the kind manifested in Cline's work, we become aware of the secrets behind our being.