THE NEUBERGER MUSEUM OF ART | JUNE 7 – OCTOBER 8, 2013
We enter the Neuberger’s expansive, darkened gallery and are drawn close to the large, complex sculptural installation that is Donna Dennis’s “Coney Night Maze.” Confronted by its cyclone fence perimeter, the viewer edges around to explore the richly detailed presentation, a section of Coney Island’s famed Cyclone roller coaster. This is the area underneath, where once you lined up for tickets and again stood in line before boarding the car.
What looks at first like an assemblage of found materials is the result of individual fabrications that amount to careful replications of once practical things now, poignantly, at the end of their time. Years have passed; neglect is evident. The single bare bulb that lights the little blue ticket booth is one of many throughout the site. Most of them are burned out; the rest provide the only illumination in the nocturnal setting. Wooden ramps, the red turnstile, and even the fabricated I-beams all belong to an era long past. Portions of the track descend into view, irregular constructions unlikely to inspire even an imaginary rider’s confidence. A bit of rock outcrop on the ground shows the structure’s accommodation to its fictive site. A back wall of irregular rock some 27 feet long has bolts and—with an ingenious, irrational touch—a small, lit window. Even the barely visible scaffolding behind the architecturally contrived illusion seems integral to the whole.
We peer through the enclosing and distressed cyclone fence to wander mentally through impossibly narrow and blocked pathways, as though in search of our bearings. Examining the installation requires moving slowly around it, visually entering a succession of perspectives—and, by implication, multiple fragmentary narratives—none of which culminate in a satisfactory conclusion. The approach and the functional structure supporting the track have been spatially collapsed yet still seem plausibly operational. The strange combination of realistic details and their absurdist assembly is one of the keys to the work’s fascination.
To dwell principally on Dennis’s realism, whether approvingly or negatively—critics have done both—is to miss the poetic, mythic nature of her art. The framing of her subjects and selections of details (coupled with the astute realism of so many details) are governed by the work’s poetic vision. Equally important is her use of scale. The sculpture’s size being diminished by a quarter or so corresponds to the psychological distance of early memories. A corollary might be the experience of returning to a childhood site and finding it so much smaller than memory had it. Were the diminution greater, were it to seem like a miniaturized model, we would feel comfortably in control of the situation. Here the effect is understated, as though the subject’s encapsulation in our mind required such downsizing.
“Coney Night Maze” is, in more ways than one, a time-based work. During the 13 years Dennis lived with and fashioned it, the sprawling, multi-part sculpture filled the studio adjacent to her living space, the time of its construction coexistent with her day-to-day life. A viewer may sense this long engagement through the complexity of the structure and, more pointedly, in its plenitude of metaphorical implications. Disassembled and transported from her TriBeCa studio to the Neuberger Museum, it is at least in part a diary of that long gestation.
The real life Cyclone experience was intended to be the ultimate thrill, the site of our daredevil ascents and plunges through space. But here in “Coney Night Maze” we are down under, cast in antsy anticipation or gnawing trepidation before that airborne adventure. If in our minds the ride itself represents the unbridled libido, this underneath place represents the darker realm of unconscious fears, conflict, and confusion. Far from the giddy freedom of hurtling along the precipitous track, we are confined and thwarted at every turn. Dennis’s “Maze” is the opposite of the celebrated roller coaster, the downside of that symbol of sheer fun and liberation.
One criticism of the Neuberger installation: the periodic sound of the rickety roller coaster overhead does the piece a disservice. Possibly an ambient sound filling the darkened gallery, one that would support the work’s dream-like character, would have worked, but the accompanying sound is too literal and is in any case unnecessary. It is the only slip in this otherwise extraordinary and affecting installation.
“Coney Night Maze” is the latest of a series of constructions that dates back to Dennis’s famed “Tourist Cabins” (1976) and other sculptures that also imply worlds beyond their ostensible subjects: “Tunnel Tower” (1979-80), although an aboveground image, nonetheless signified the depths of the Holland Tunnel beneath the Hudson; “Deep Station” (1981-5), an imagined part New York’s subway domain. Like all of her works, these are convincing and richly evocative images.
Having begun her career as a painter and still a deft watercolorist, Dennis’s sense of color and light and her pictorial imagination remain central to her art. She is of that American strain of deceptively straightforward artists whose work harbors the dark visions underlying Edward Hopper’s cannily constructed paintings and Robert Frost’s subtly haunted verse.
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