New York

Donna Dennis

Holly Solomon Gallery

The two large sculptures in this show, Subway with Silver Girders and Skowhegan Stairway, gain by Donna Dennis’ willingness to increase the overall scale and internal complexities of her work. Skowhegan Stairway is a reprise of the country-architecture theme that runs through her oeuvre in counterpoint with the bits of cityscape. In it she seems to have subtracted a skewed section of a two-story frame house from its surrounds so that the stairwell, a conduit rather than a room, forms the central interior space. An outside doorway, partially canopied, makes an entryway from the white wooden exterior in front, while a second screen door leads into the same stairwell from the back. One outer side of this peculiarly shaped structure is a silver-painted brick wall replete with electrical outlets and meter; another tar-papered side supports a metal smoke flue and offers a view of the second floor through a small window. Upstairs a bare bulb illuminates what must be a landing.

Since the color of this small-town or rural structure is for the most part muted to whites and grays, light plays an important role in its presentation. Painting the gallery walls dark gray and underlighting the piece worked to its advantage, and suggested that some of its predecessors—certain of Dennis’ hotels, all her tourist cabins, and another two-story house—are best thought of and seen in a permanent dusk. They all emanate the melancholic side of twilight, the time between consciousness and sleep. Unpopulated, ambiguous, somewhat sad, they diverge from obvious comparison with Edward Hopper’s paintings in their willful uninhabitability. Because of their odd scale, built, I understand, so that the artist’s forehead comes just to the door lintels, Dennis’ spaces are to be looked at but not entered. The enforced distance between spectator and what is portrayed underscores the melancholy. We see, and can recognize, but as in a dream; all is perceived visually, to the exclusion of the other senses.

Dennis’ urban pieces make this removal even more dramatic, devoid as they are of crowds, noise, and odors. The absence is noteworthy since Subway with Silver Girders, by virtue of its subject, is in large part about those crowds, those noises and odors—Dennis has made the hell without the fire and brimstone. This piece is her most elaborate yet; its I-beams, girders, tracks, exit stairways, and electrical wires and fixtures are all in place, made clean and rendered weightily opaque by repeated coats of paint. As in reality, the paint has been applied in a slapdash way, and it was in fact these paint splashes that shook me out of admiring the seamless accuracy of the piece. With most of the exposed wiring, the light bulbs, and the clock that hangs on a wall of the second tier, they are oversized discrepancies, deliberate contradictions of the miniaturization inherent in Dennis’ style, contradictions that bring back to the surface the falsity of her enterprise.

The skewed perspective of Skowhegan Stairway finds an echo here in the oblique-angled tracks. The silver, red, blue, and yellow of the classic subway scene constitute the piece’s coloration; it is a palette of utility in which colors signify function. Yet Dennis’ subway is afunctional; it is an elaborate evocation of time and place, built to a large scale, yet not large or generous enough to enclose or shelter us. Her fascination with transitional places such as hotels, stairs, and tunnels animates the metaphorical impression she creates—the work takes us from the here and now, but we never really reach another there and then. For all their pseudo-concreteness, her structures are flights of imagination.

Richard Armstrong