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Memento Vivere: Danica Lundy at Magenta Plains

Danica Lundy, Spark up, gas down, 2021, oil on canvas, 96 x 144 inches. (Images courtesy of the artist and Super Dakota, Brussels)

Contributed by Margaret McCann / Like a strobe light gifted with consciousness, Danica Lundy lets whatever she sees point a way through a painting. The six works in “Three Hole Punch” at Magenta Plains are informed by memories of soccer practice, parties, school, and more — themes that function mainly as armatures for corporeal drama and mesmerizing painting detail. In the large, dazzling Spark up, gas down young people hang in and around cars in a parking lot at night. Someone proffers a beer, farther up people sit on car hoods or, in the far distance, rummage through a trunk. To the right a couple are having a conversation, but whether it’s deep or shallow is unclear. Cloisonnistic borders, like the Cubistic ones in Thomas Hart Benton‘s paintings extolling modern labor in the machine age, organize these vignettes. What might appear to be a carefree, youthful idyll is subverted by incidentals such as a bent over girl puking in a bag; because it”s not quite funny it doesn’t comedically resolve, suspending the narrative to keep the viewer guessing. 

Electric light bouncing off glass and metal gives the image a shimmering quality. A glittering seat belt and door-lock knob in extreme foreground fortify the rectangle to contain the action. There, a Robert Birmelin-like transparent hand holds sparkling keys. Nearby, fingerprints on the window are one of Lundy’s many diverting Proustian footnotes — offhand instances of cause and effect drawing on the eye’s ability to shift, refocus, and inquire — the pleasures of open-ended looking. If unnoticed by the viewer on the first go around, they emerge like rewards later.  

Danica Lundy, installation view

Lundy’s use of cars (in several works, two in this show) echoes the Futurist enthusiasm for gleaming metal, velocity, and change. Seat springs, dials, glove compartments, and six pack rings suggest the multivalent sensations cars offer — headlights piercing into hypnotic one-point perspective as speed blurs out the side window; smells of gas, exhaust, cigarettes, air conditioning; engines revving, idling, or humming along in a sealed chamber for meditation, conversation, meditation or music. A latecomer in Spark up, gas down thrusts open her car door. We can almost hear it creak as the push responds to the inevitable heaviness felt when momentum is halted by the hinge. Implied here and elsewhere is the physical pleasure of manipulation — how the car (especially a standard shift) is handled by a body as Lundy happens to express them in the act of painting. The vigor of the painter is acted out in her figures. 

Against the sensitive equilibrium held by the exiting passenger’s taut, strong, yet scrappily defined arm, her foot tests how rough the pavement is. As it seems to consider how to position itself, her eye aligns with the forefront window, and perhaps regards another female across the way — a potential rival, an alter ego? It doesn’t matter, because attempts to understand their relationship are diverted by information on the latter’s door, asking us what those reflected bodies are doing and where they are. Deciphering spatial cues is another entertaining aspect of Lundy’s paintings. Full of sensory reaction and understanding, they express feelings more fundamental than psyche or interpersonal rapport. Despite the teen films cited as inspiration, there is little or no psychodrama or romantic suspense. Faces don’t betray individuality, readable emotion, or motive. Undriven by narrative responsibility, characters are eager actors happy to perform for us, act out in whatever spectacle Lundy concocts. 

Bodily actions trigger muscle memory the way watching the Olympics does — an impersonal but highly attuned physical empathy with its own exquisite drama. Sports is featured in U of u, following a tradition that goes back at least to Greek sculpture’s praise of the athletic body. Our vision, framed by a hoodie that touches a blocky clavicle recalling Luca Signorelli‘s earnest anatomical thinking, slides along the player’s body and up the picture plane. We land on the sideline, where another being bandaged seems more thirsty than distressed. There is no conclusion to this slice of life, but the lack of apparent meaning in Lundy’s stories — like the tale of someone vomiting in Peggy cries softly — does not dishearten because Lundy’s youthful skepticism stops well short of nihilism. Unlike Damien Hirst’s shock-jockery, an animated, technical bravado and respect for particulars keep us involved and caring. 

Danica Lundy, Peggy cries softly, 2021, oil on canvas, 60 x 60 inches

Lundy’s unapologetic vantage doesn’t need to surpass any male gaze. While her quizzical eye for detail and affinity for muscular gesture were no doubt honed from observation and figure study, her confident scan may have developed from experience on the field. In the United States we can thank Title IX for strengthening vision beyond gendered inhibitions – although today’s desiring consumerist eye, navigating the internet looking for stimulation, might deserve more credit. In any case, Lundy’s opportunistic gaze is mirror neuron-driven, recalling the Greek psychopodia — a tactile form of perception that preceded the model of the eye as receptor. Freely roving, Lundy seems to revel in Gustave Flaubert’s optimistic observation that “anything becomes interesting if you look at it long enough.”

Danica Lundy, Kissing cavity, 2021, oil on canvas, 72 x 48 inches

Lively impatience is carried through the classroom scene Kissing a Cavity, where our view is conducted through a schoolgirl’s mouth. Zooming in and out, we notice a specter at the distant blackboard, perhaps a teacher, though drawings there could be by a naughty classmate, or the protagonist’s woolgathering projections. Greater attention to these options is derailed by a mean girl’s glowing blonde hair and a boy looking back, a pencil pointed at the girl or at herself — hara-kiri style, or, as in a Freudian nightmare, to be gnawed on with ineffectual gossamer teeth. Back stories don’t matter; simultaneous, free-associative combinations — like the triangulating term “three-hole punch” — naturally occur, mind-pops that vision darts through. Around the three-ring binder here, the play of light on paper and glinting off metallic parts in the desk below, steals the show — another not-pretty yet jewel-like treat from her paintings.

In Compressions, reminiscent of Dana Schutz’s tender Surgery, mortality is joked about as realization dawns that a near-death experience, or the attempted revival of a rotting corpse one might imagine oneself to someday be, is punctuated by a bloody tampon floating in invisible pelvic anatomy. The pressure of the David Siqueiros-like hands pumping the sternum and heart is intensely satisfying yet cartoonish, like the gruesome yet goofy, rubbery, twisting flesh. Meanwhile, omnipresent beads of sweat or desiccation delicately fragment the surface. Captivating articulations of light and shadow on glistening timepieces, and in careful folds of tropical-patterned terrycloth, lighten the mood. A Jorg Immendorf-like energy keeps the gloomy at bay as visual curiosity is continuously propelled forward. 

Danica Lundy, Compressions, 2021, oil on canvas, 72 x 96 inches

Despite its attraction, color is incidental and saturation may at times impede the way. Lundy’s present power is centered in tonal structure and variegated textures — upholstery, slimy grass, droplets, metals — that her more dry, delicate pen drawings showcase. In her oils, local textures play off fluid abstract ones that flinging paint around gives way to — and which may then surrealistically determine how forms ensue, — a la Max Ernst. While flesh feels mostly like paint, her alchemical textures can disarm, evoking sensations that imply gentleness, anger, and disgust — not unlike those Otto Dix found in his etchings of decaying soldiers in trenches. But while his depict the horror of war, Lundy’s ungainly swashes, awkward dabs, and inconsistent smears, made by whim and loose-limbed vitality, can contradict iconography. Opposing emotive responses on our part — ick, wow, huh? — keep us in a state of non-linear expectation, ever-ready to enjoy the bumpy ride’s surprises. 

Ferry Ride might have a conclusion, however. The cubic interior of a front seat both aligns with the picture’s rectangle and braces a passenger in the upper corner waiting to cross to another shore. The mythology of driving or the open road implied here has been mined by filmmakers from Federico Fellini to Wim Wenders and wordsmiths like Walt Whitman, Jack Kerouac and Bruce Springsteen. Lundy’s existentialism is oblique, with no minor chords or painful sweetness to guide feeling. From a stretched diagonal pose, the tension of toes against the window highlights tacky contact of toe pads against glass. We can feel the stickiness and may wonder whether grime or humidity caused it. This element of levity distracts from the potential of the scene to convey quiet waiting, something Edward Hopper would poetically evoke, and which is also muted by a dizzying vortex pulling the eye from a flat pattern of ribs into a deep dive down the car door to feet on the ground. The flamboyant iconography of this other figure’s half-skeletal anatomy, a jarring juxtaposition like that of the anamorphic skull in Holbein’s The Ambassadors, ruptures the reading.                           

Danica Lundy, Ferry ride, 2021, oil on canvas, 96 x 72.25 inches

The painting’s division into two areas holds the vectored space together: a light, flat one of bones, sock, dashboard, adjacent white car, short shirt and bottle mouth that disintegrates reality like a photographic negative, and a colored one full of life, with a vertical ballast of dark down the center. Her bare toes touch the border between them, as does the subtle shadow of the standing figure across her body. While Lundy doesn’t say much about the rapport between these people aside from ease, the image implies separation and passage. Without the angst or mourning of Kathe Kollwitz or Edvard Munch, sudden and inexplicable departure is suggested. The x-ray ribcage, which might appear corny at first, lingers hauntingly like an afterimage. All her pictures avoid sentimental rumination by keeping things moving with multiple focal points — circus-like visions that are Nietzschean reminders that one is alive and can flourish with passionate commitment. 

Lundy’s fearless gusto reminded me of Tintoretto’s theatrical Biblical paintings at San Rocco in Venice. The massive cycle offers one visual thrill after another; the spectacular Crucifixion feels almost like a celebration. Tintoretto may lack the subtle resonance of Titian or Bellini, who more quietly induce the profound. But his histrionics probably gave the private Catholic institution that commissioned them, serving victims of the plague, a shot in the arm. Likewise, Lundy’s intelligent, challenging, life-affirming sensationalism feels just right for a pandemic.

“Danica Lundy: Three Hole Punch,” Magenta Plains, 94 Allen Street, New York, NY. Through March 10.

About the author: Painter and arts writer Margaret McCann has taught at The Art Students League, Montclair University, and the New York Academy of Art. She lives and works in New York City.

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