March 3, 2008

Donnelly conceals hidden treasure in spartan set

[img id="80410" align="alignleft"] At her first opening in New York, Trisha Donnelly rode into the Casey Kaplan Gallery on a horse, wearing a Napoleonic outfit, and made a declaration of surrender that would have saved the emperor from his Waterloo. Her eccentricities are appreciated, as is her craftsmanship: Donnelly is well known for her ability to work comfortably with a wide variety of media, a talent that will be shown off at her eponymous exhibit at the Renaissance Society.

This exhibit is a conceptual tour de minimal. The voluminous, naturally bright white room seems to be adorned with only two ordinary office chairs. One is draped with leather, and on the other sits a digital projector displaying an image on a tall white panel in one corner of the room. The sparse ink drawings on the leather look like slashes. The projection is a split image of gasoline sloshing to the center where lime-green digital lightning is flashing. The color play is definitely interesting, but the piece leaves something to be desired. When you initially enter the exhibit and see the huge titanium white room with these two pieces on Target office chairs, it feels like you walked into some kind of bizarre office crime—as if this office and its drab implements were commandeered by someone who had never known these objects in their natural setting.

The first time I went to the exhibit I looked at these conspicuous pieces for a while and then wondered if that was it. Maybe the other pieces had been temporarily taken down. Maybe this was everything. From looking at other Donnelly shows I knew that wall space and environment are important to her art. I went through momentary grief, shock, denial, anger, and a melancholy that only contemporary art can give me, but then I thought I had better take a closer look. I reexamined the panel with the moving color image. Yes, there are secrets in Trisha Donnelly’s exhibit at the Renaissance Society.

On the back of the tall white panels in each of the four corners there is a series of pencil-and-ink drawings. Starting with the panel that I assume was supposed to be the first, because Donnelly tugs us over there with the gasoline lightning storm, the drawings are sparse and abstract. A few themes began to emerge as I scuttled from one corner to the other. The relationships between the two drawings tend to pair one featuring more geometric lines with one that is more organic. The thematic shape is basically that of a frame one would set up for a game of hangman. That’s the effect it has in one of the drawings: She uses the shape to look like a big cut on the chair. She places two back-to-back to look like a crucifixion on the last panel. It is simple, but impressive. The exhibition works as one piece, a unified and staged process, and an effective one.

I went back to the show a second time, more savvy, and was tucked in one of the corners looking at the pictures on the back of the last panel. Someone walked in. I observed from my dugout; the person circled the draped office-chair murder a few times, scratched his head, and made a quick awkward exit. I was definitely disappointed, but at the same time, I felt like I was in on Trisha Donnelly’s joke.

The exhibition is a good concept. Sometimes it takes a little persistence to find the beautiful things in the world. Although there seemed to be more effort spent on the legerdemain and less on the final image, the art is there, so go find it!