Lael Corbin at MCASD. Photo by Kelly Davis.
When conceptual artist Lael Corbin looks at laboratories and workshops, he sees more than test tubes and tools. Like a curious child, eyes wide and mind open, he scrambles to fill in the blanks. What's that? Why? How?
The San Diego native draws on these inspirations for his latest installation, a commission that will be unveiled on March 26 as part of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego's Cerca Series.
“It's a big, messy, in-progress workspace,” Corbin says. “For me, there's intrigue when there are elements that are finished and fairly recognizable and elements that are in-progress. The outcome is left up to the imagination. I like the chaos-versus-control aspect of it.”
The mixed-media show centers on an unfinished airplane, 28 feet long with a 40-foot wingspan. It will also include sketches, topographic photography and audio recordings. This isn't just a model airplane made life-size by a skilled tinkerer, though; expect a clever twist.
Corbin, who won the 2007/08 San Diego Art Prize for emerging artist (chosen by Roman de Salvo), first caught the art world's eye with his 2007 master's-thesis exhibition, Latitudes, at San Diego State University, work that toyed with experimentation and objective museum display. He describes it as “mad scientist-y.”
In 2008, at Little Italy's Seminal Projects, Corbin's Remodel reconceived the gallery as a construction zone, a home renovation in its messy stage. The setting felt familiar, but the worksite stuff wasn't exactly what it seemed: a cache of tools were carved from soap, a sawhorse table was a curvy minimalist sculpture.
The artist attributes his fascination with workspaces to his childhood, which he spent in Point Loma, where he now teaches at Point Loma Nazarene University.
“My dad's a finish carpenter, so I spent a lot of time on jobsites and seeing these in-flux environments. As a kid, it was all really stimulating, as far as not knowing what was going on. And so I just let my imagination fill in whatever I thought was going on or trying to figure out what was taking place. I like that aspect of it.”
Corbin chose art over carpentry for “the freedom to make what I want to make,” he says. “But it's funny because I find myself coming back to woodworking and these more methodical-based ways of working. I keep asking myself: Why do I keep coming back to this? I thought I became an artist to get away from this! But there's something there that I really love, too. Why am I continuing to seek manual labor as an outlet? It's just appealing.”
Science also plays a role in Corbin's aesthetic, though it wasn't until grad school that it kicked in as a significant influence. “I've always been one to look through geology books and history of biology and these sorts of things. As a kid, I'd flip through National Geographic and look at the pictures and let my imagination fill in the story because I wasn't reading the article, just perusing the images. That curious mind is the connection to science.”
As part of the MCASD show, Corbin, who keeps journals filled with images and ideas, was asked to choose a single reference material that's informed his work in a major way. At 4 p.m. Saturday, March 27, Corbin will lead an informal talk about his selection, the novel Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lighthouse, who teaches physics and writing at M.I.T. The bestselling book, based loosely on Einstein's thought experiments, is a series of lyrical narratives about places where time and space behave very differently.
“What I like about that book is that it really deals with the whole idea of thought experiments and the idea of ‘What if,'” Corbin says. “What if there was a world like that?”
He relates Lighthouse's conceit to his airplane, which looks like a traditional airplane until you inspect a little closer.
“Certainly, it's using some traditional plane-building aspects to it, but the skin is going to be gelatin. The mad scientist work that I used to do before the Remodel show was kind of dealing with that. What if we took this material and used it for something completely different? What type of environment would that need to take place in, and what kind of narrative does it suggest? I think that's the real parallel, this idea of what if something was this way instead of that way, what would happen? It makes us think about what it would it look like.”
For all his mad-scientist tendencies, Corbin comes off as a completely regular guy. He lives in the College Area with his wife, artist Christina Corbin, and their kids. He likes to surf and hang out at Balboa Park. He works out of his garage, which he shares with file cabinets and a washer and dryer. This happy home life inspires his work, too. Remodel included a washer and dryer, built from medium-density fibreboard and stripped of any obvious functional elements like knobs and handles.
“It's funny 'cause we actually were looking to buy the house right when that show was taking place. In the midst of all that, my wife was pregnant with twins. So I definitely was feeling domestic when I did that show. That piece in particular, the washer and dryer, I think of now as my twins. They were my twins before they were born.”
And even though Corbin likes to convey a sense of process and progress—resulting in works that appear to be somewhere between start and finish—he's most satisfied when there's a sense of completion. Setting up his work in the gallery, he says, is his favorite part.
“I like this formal cleaning up of the whole thing that takes place when I put it in a gallery, and then I can look at it as an object rather than some process that I was involved in. I really like the end.”