Hudson, New York
The first tenuous steps through a curtained portal into Donna Dennis’s Ship/Dock/Three Houses and the Night Sky (2021–23), on view through June 25, 2023, plunges you into momentary darkness, a seeming black hole in space. The muffled presence of other viewers is comforting, especially as eyes adjust to gradual light and welcome the shared wonder. “What is that?” asked one disoriented visitor, as she beheld the enormous architectural structure before her—a replicated ore dock facing a vast ocean. Dennis has indeed outdone herself in this latest iteration of her iconic dock installations and paintings, a nesting of metaphors within one monumental symbol of the sublime.
Inspired by an ore dock that captured her imagination when she visited Lake Superior in Duluth, Minnesota, this work physically and emotionally expands an earlier version of the subject, Ship and Dock/Nights and Days or The Gazer (2018). Substituting wood for metal and adding assorted materials to realize what was in her mind’s eye, Dennis has created a muscular sculpture that sets three small, industrial-inspired cabins atop and within an architectural framework of columns, ramps, beams, cables, and stairways. A pile of unloaded iron ore sits beneath the dock. This dramatic construction frames a vast illusionistic seascape video depicting a large ship on the horizon, journeying from sunrise to sunset, into the black of night. Refrains from a swinging halyard and lapping water orchestrate the unrelenting ebb and flow of cosmic time.
The 80-year-old artist puts it mildly when she speaks of this daunting work as a nod to her voyage through mortal time, for she digs deep within the metaphysical journey, by turns serene and terrifying, that we all share. She maintains visual and psychological tension by keeping viewers on edge. Disequilibrium, first experienced with your initial unsteady steps into the dark gallery space, repeats as it becomes clear that the ship on the left side of the nine-minute looping video will ultimately descend into the starry galaxy of unremitting blackness on the right side of the composition.
Dennis punctuates this metaphoric life journey by strategically placing her small cabins. Though all three visually reference dock equipment shacks, they psychologically recall her early architectural sculptures, inspired by the tourist cabins that she visited with her family during childhood vacations. She refers to the present dock cabins as temporary shelters because, like those vacation cottages, they symbolize all houses and homes as short-lived stays, through which we pass during our brief visit to earth.
The first cabin faces the viewer, the incandescent light aglow within suggesting a warm sanctuary spared from the perils of high seas and cold nights. The second cabin, its exterior dimly lit, faces the horizon, its outlook uncertain as if suddenly aware of mortal time. The third, unlit, cabin, set against the eternally black sky and difficult to discern, suggests a way station between heaven and earth. It is a new addition to Dennis’s ore-related series: “One that has likely been there all along,” she notes, adding that “at the end of one’s life, one places oneself in darkness, and I need to feel I’m getting somewhere understanding this.”
Despite Dennis’s confrontations with mortality, her construct also provides a quiet, meditative space where nature silently anoints our earthly presence. So, the installation becomes a celebration of the life that enabled her, through her work, to create a space for a woman’s voice. As an artist who began her career during the feminist movement, she equates “voice” with visual and working space, a realization born during the years she fought to protect her New York City loft from the landlords seeking to evict her. She recalls, “As I expanded my internal space in the city, my voice grew larger, I became more confident, and I felt I had an impact on how things were being done.” The tight hold on her expansive loft space and her political voice also fueled her courage to make art from experimental materials and to pursue architectural genres considered at the time to be radical for women artists. Like the macho dock armature framing the forces of nature, Dennis’s voice grounds her sense of self as her work invites thoughtful reflection for those who embrace her journey through time.
Chris Freeman, curator and gallery director, aptly described the experience of Dennis’s work as a “slow burn,” a deeply personal spiritual experience, unique to each individual viewer. Many see Dennis’s transcendent journey as prophesizing the fate of our earth, which, for all its creative and destructive powers, is as fragile and vulnerable as humanity. As she sees it, “we are burning through the planet.”
Metaphor runs rampant in Dennis’s work, where the reimagining of an ore dock sitting on a lake has loosed into the world a timeless icon harboring the human condition. Ship/Dock/Three Houses and the Night Sky is indeed a masterpiece.