For Buffalo-born artist Stephen Lane, geographical and cultural boundaries are trifling inconveniences.
The 39-year-old painter has had solo exhibitions in Moscow, two cities in Estonia, Toronto and Helsinki. As curator and exhibitor he has brought together American artists and Chinese artists in exhibitions that traveled from Beijing to New York City and back again. In another show -- exhibited at galleries in this country, Canada and Japan -- he arranged for Japanese artists to be shown alongside American artists.
This account leaves out his many activities in Manhattan, where he now works and lives. Manhattan, as anyone knows who has lived there, is a geographical center with formidable cultural boundaries of its own. In New York City, Lane has received considerable exposure in solo and group exhibitions, the most recent being a successful one-person exhibition at O.K. Harris Gallery.
Lane's next cross-cultural effort is a second show in Moscow, a city that Lane says has unbounded enthusiasm for new ideas.
A group of abstract paintings recently on view at Burchfield-Penney Art Center will travel to Moscow's International University in an exhibition to begin Monday and continue through Nov. 1. The university was created after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and has none other than Boris Yeltsin as head of its board of directors. During the days before and during the exhibition, the Voice of America will broadcast an interview with the artist.
Lane first discovered Muscovites' unflagging cultural enthusiasm when he visited the city for a month in 1993.
"They are thirsty for almost anything cultural," he says. "Moscow has a small 'SoHo' and an evolving art scene that is interesting to me. It's somewhere between being organized and being innocent."
Economically, things were in a bad state then, and they remain so, says Lane.
"They have no money and I had to pay for the opening. But a lot of people came and caviar was served -- which is very cheap, about like buying tuna here. Also there was a lot of vodka and beer."
A 1993 exhibition at the Tallinn Art University in Tallinn, Estonia (later shown in Parnu, Estonia, as well), also was realized by stretching meager resources.
"It was rustic," Lane says. "No one had hooks to hang the paintings, so we had to use bent nails. They are very kind people who have terrible food and good beer."
They also feel the weight of their past under Soviet domination. The exhibition catalog was printed in English, Estonian and Russian, which, says Lane, irritated the Estonians no end because of long years spent in the Russian yoke.
The coming trip to Moscow should be a bit easier, says Lane, thanks to a group called the Russian American Cultural Forum. They will assist by picking him up at the airport, helping him get around the city and, best, providing an apartment for the artist during his stay.
As a response to contrasting economic conditions here and in Russia, Lane has devised a unique sales system for his show.
"There's something ridiculous about putting on an exhibition, New York-style, in a foreign country. For me, it's like a transplant, too much like the way McDonald's works over there. Sales for my show will be by blind bid and there will be no low price. You pay whatever you want. I might be selling things for 25 cents."
Lane says that for once he wanted to avoid the usual structure of selling, to bypass the taint of possession and profit, and concentrate on the exhibit itself. Proceeds will go to other artists through an organization called True Art Association, a "kind of dada organization," according to Lane, "that has no president but has a vice president."
Lane thinks that this kind of planned irreverence toward art and its value is healthy. He cites with approval a story about Robert Rauschenberg, who, when exhibiting in Italy, had a hostile Italian art critic suggest in print that he throw a particular work in the river. Shortly the critic received a note from the artist: "I took your advice; I threw it in the river."
Lane is no stranger to acts of severe self-criticism. In 1978, shortly after graduating from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, he traveled to Greece. He produced what he calls "these awful paintings." It seemed a waste to just throw them out. "So I gave them away to a farmer and he used them on his roof."
Lane says that acts of devaluation can function to remind the artist that what he or she is doing isn't supposed to be about money. He thinks that the exhibition in Moscow, with its undercutting of capitalist price structuring, may stand as a comment on the state of art in this country, particularly the government's lack of art funding.
"In Russia they suppressed art. It was a desert for 40 years. Here we live in this great democracy and yet we don't fund our own artists.
"I'm doing this show because these are harsh times. I want to see something happen that is unusual. The normal way is too predictable."
Lane's decade-long attempt to blur cultural boundaries began in 1987 when he curated and participated in "New York/Beijing." The show did the unusual thing of bringing together in the same space American and Chinese artists. It was seen in venues in China and Hong Kong, New York City and Boston. Then in 1991 he curated a show of drawings called "USA/Japan/China," shown in Tokyo, Toronto and New York.
For the most part when exhibiting in this country Lane accepts the "normal way" as the inevitable fate of the artist's life. He has had a number of shows at commercial galleries in New York City, for instance, that follow standard gallery procedure. He shows and sells at good prices, as any artist might hope to do. About half of the paintings in his recent solo show at O.K. Harris Gallery, a longtime mainstay in SoHo's art scene, sold at prices ranging from $6,000 to $12,000.
And for all the interest that Lane has in the social order, his abstract paintings are mute on the subject. Their minimal, vaguely geometric forms are almost buried in the rich texture of heavily applied oil paint. Though he restricts himself to mostly off-whites and grays, muddied ochres and grayed blues, his paintings rumble with an inner agitation. The paint seems to clog up around the edges of the forms as well as at the edges of the painting, making it seem that it can barely contain the emotion from spilling out of the canvas.
Lane was born in Buffalo in 1956 and travels here two or three times a year to see his mother, Sylvia Lane, who lives in North Buffalo. Culturally, he has kept in touch with his hometown by exhibiting here whenever the opportunity presents itself. In addition to his show at the Burchfield-Penney he has taken part in group exhibitions at the former Nina Freudenheim Gallery.
Like many artists, Lane must lead a double life to survive. Sales from paintings are few and far between, and New York City is expensive. In his "day job" -- as artists like to call what they do to keep on painting -- he's an administrative assistant in the education department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he organizes children's programs. Then there's a part-time job driving a limo. The remaining time is for painting.
"My life is divided between job and art, and I expend a lot of effort keeping art and life coherent."
Lane thinks that any society worth its salt should arrange things so that this coherence between art and life is an easy and natural thing. It isn't an easy and natural thing, he suspects, because we live in a hopelessly homogenized culture that leaves little room for expressions outside the norm.
He offers art museums as an example. "Museums become sanctuaries; they project an atmosphere of reverence. The philosophy behind a museum is just the opposite of what it should be."
But artists, whatever situations society may offer them, must persevere or they will not long remain artists. Lane has persevered. When he looks back on his 1982 move to Manhattan, he has only two words to describe it: "totally suicidal."
"I shudder to think of it," he says. "But then, I'm still here."