Donna Dennis, Ship and Dock/Nights and Days or The Gazer, 2018. Mixed media, installation view: night. Photo: Etienne Frossard, Courtesy the artist and Lesley Heller Gallery, NY

Donna Dennis

New York

Lesley Heller Gallery

The muscular ore dock sitting in Lake Superior’s frigid waters immediately caught Donna Dennis’s eye with its play of sturdy grids framing vast space, its bold forms dominating daylight yielding to black night, and its aloneness. Ship and Dock/Nights and Days or The Gazer (2018), a jaw-dropping interpretation of a section of that dock, dominated her recent exhibition of the same name, paired with the elegant and fragile series of gouaches that inspired it. This latest iteration of Dennis’s structural installations, like those before it, located poetry and metaphor within an architecture capable of bearing the weight of heavy loads. The transcendental effect of Ship and Dock/ Nights and Days owed much to Dennis’s transformation of the viewer from a temporal observer positioned outside her small paintings into a protagonist within a scenario of manufactured structure and surrounding timeless seascape, where delicate mists conjoin sea and sky.

Dennis achieved inscrutable effects with her first-time use of sound video. Passing through a curtained-off area, viewers entered a black room with exposed walls starlit by tiny points of LED light. A girded structure replicating the armature of an ore dock sunk deep into the ocean floor commanded the space and supported two small, generic houses. One, lit within by a light bulb and connected to exterior pipes and wires, pulsed with inner life. The second, “the gazer,” was a shadow of the first house, dimly lit by an indeterminate source. It faced a projection of a ship on the distant horizon, its sole company the crescendo of winds, the clink of a swinging halyard, and the relentless lapping of waves. Beneath the dock, and difficult to discern, sat a pile of coal.

Dennis’s overriding focus on mortality is often inspired by actual events. Coney Night Maze (1997–2009), which re-invented the substructure of the famed rollercoaster, the Cyclone, evolved in response to the events of September 11, 2001. Little Tube House and the Night Sky (2015), a re-invention of a vernacular electrical shack with exposed wires and tubes, served as a metaphor for Dennis’s dying friend. The Gazer, about life passing, energy being processed, burned, and burned out, made a mournful comment on the current political state of mind, asking, “What happens when the world goes dark?”

Dennis pieced together her answer by photographing and then merging two gouache drawings. A video artist mapped the day-into-night scene, a shift from light to dark that made the ship appear to move slowly along the horizon, though it was as constant as the two houses. Scale, a crucial physical and psychological element for Dennis, informed every inch of her process as she conveyed the enormity of mammoth architecture afloat in infinite space within the confines of a small corner. A bit smaller than actual size, the human-scale houses allowed awed viewers to feel stoically equipped in the face of mortality.

Dennis then stretched the concept of scale further, engaging it as a vehicle to navigate the viewer dynamically between delicate gouaches and rugged ore dock. In the gouaches, thin washes of transparent black paint render the sturdiest of manufactured forms ephemeral. Transitioning within the larger installation to become part of a cosmic cycle, they elevate physical and psychic energy to the level of the sublime, where there is no beginning and no end. This merger of media was a touch of genius. The viewer as participant and witness was present—for an infinitesimal flash of time.

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