“I’ll try not to be too verbose,” says Doyle Reno, “but it does take some explaining.”
He’s trying to define his sculpture process, by which he completes large-scale works of art that he doesn’t see until after they’re finished. That claim, he says, raises doubts in the minds of skeptics. In November, he will unveil a massive sculpture at Art San Diego. Before that day, he won’t know what the finished piece looks like.
Reno continues, “I start with ½-inch sheets of cell cast acrylic, a space age plastic that’s super-hard and optically pure. It comes with protective paper on each side.”
The paper is a vital part of the process.
“I remove the paper from one side. I sculpt it, I paint it, but I never take the paper off of the viewing side. The sculpting side isn’t the side that viewers see. Since the material is clear, everyone looks from the other side. It’s tricky, because I am sculpting in reverse, for viewing from the opposite side. Backgrounds become foregrounds, etc. As I paint and sculpt, I cover up a lot of what I’m working on and it becomes less discernible. I call it “blind sculpture” because I don’t look at the finished work until I’m completely done with it.”
In order to remove sections of the super-tough material, Reno employs an industrial die grinder. He describes it as a king-sized Dremel that can “get away from you if you’re not careful,” which inspires visions of sharpened carbide grinding bits set free to do damage as they please. Reno adds with a laugh that he calls the die grinder “the wild weasel.”
As he sculpts, with curlicues of plastic flying everywhere and the wild weasel screeching in his hands, Reno cuts a kind of pointillist relief into the plastic sheet. Each sculpture is made of thousands of small marks. The three dimensional base is only as deep as the plastic, so his sculptures are shallow despite their great size, sometimes as much as 4x8 feet. The optical effects of greater depth come as he paints the back side of the sculpture.
Reno does everything freehand. Without templates. Try drawing a nearly perfect circle on a sheet of paper, he suggests. Then try duplicating that with an industrial grinder turning at 24,000 RPM. Despite accusations to the contrary, Reno swears he never relies on a CNC machine to make the cuts in the acrylic.
“I’ve never had anyone in my studio who hasn’t said, ‘Hey, I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Reno says, even though the idea isn’t totally unique to him. The artist refers to dyed Lucite from the Thirties and Forties as a kind of progenitor to his work, without the sense of scale and the fine arts intent.
On why he started working “blind,” Reno says, “When I started doing this years ago, I would pull the paper off both sides. Not only could I not wait to see the artwork, but I had to figure out what the hell I was doing. I was running back and forth around the material trying to figure out what the finished product would look like. One day, I decided I wouldn’t waste all that time. I was just going to do it and see what happened.”
Despite the fact that he’s working with clear material, Reno says the work in progress gives very few hints at impact of the finished product.
“Believe it or not, even though I’ve had an intimate relationship with the material over the weeks and months of sculpting, and I think I might understand the landscape of it, ultimately, it’s a complete shock to see it.”
He cites the moon as an extreme example. We’re used to seeing the moon, replete with craters, but imagine if we were inside a hollow moon and we saw the craters coming towards us in conic sections. Sure, we’d have an idea of what it would look like from the other side, but the real effect and magnitude of the thing would be unknown.
For Doyle Reno, saving the finished product for his own eyes was just the beginning. Public unveiling was the next step in pushing himself to experiment with blind sculpture.
“One day, I was challenged by a fellow artist who said, ‘When you finish a sculpture, I want to come down there and see you unveil it.’ I had never unveiled one of these things in front of someone before. It’s risky, because there have been a few instances where, after finishing a piece, I’ve pulled back the paper and realized I’ve made some huge errors or that the composition wasn’t anywhere near where I wanted it to be. I’ve had to spend two months reworking a piece that I’d already spent two months on.”
At Art San Diego, when Reno peels back the protective paper on a new work, it will be the first time he or anyone else has looked through the crystalline surface of the acrylic sheet and seen the sculpture as it was intended to be seen. He’s confident in his abilities--it’s not his first time at the rodeo--but he knows there is a chance that the piece flops. It’s a risk he’s willing to take.