Contributed by Iris Cushing / Donna Dennis is an artist of transition and transformation. Her architectural installations – which she pioneered in the 1960s and has continued to develop – often take the shape of transitory sites: subway stations, hotels, tourist cabins, and, in the case of her show “Ship/Dock/Three Houses and a Night Sky” at Private Public Gallery in Hudson, a loading dock. Like much of Dennis’ work, this installation draws on her experience and observation of vernacular spaces. It evokes industrial structures on the shore of Lake Superior, where the earth’s minerals are loaded on freighters by the ton and transported over water. This work marks the first time in Dennis’ expansive career that she’s combined three-dimensional architecture with painting. In merging the two media, she seamlessly creates a world for viewers to dream into.
The first thing you notice upon entering this world is the darkness. Beyond a vestibule contained by blackout curtains is a space as dark as the wilderness beside a lake at nighttime. Seated on a bench, you may find the darkness momentarily overwhelming as your eyes adjust to the space. In front of you stands a multi-story structure made of what appears to be black wrought iron, incorporating three small houses, one with a glowing light inside. The horizon line of a lake stretches beyond the structure, a freighter silhouetted beneath a sky filled with stars. The lake and sky are projections of Dennis’ gouache paintings of Lake Superior, gauzy, delicately colored, and life-like. A subtle, pulsing sound advances and recedes as the sky fades from black into the paler shades of morning.
This haunting exhibition realizes a full spectrum of emotional resonance. The intricate structure of the loading dock suggests scaffolding, creating the sensation of being backstage or behind the scenes, able to see the inner workings of something enormous. The viewer’s position at the back of the loading dock conveys the feeling of being hidden, as if “on the lam” or waiting for a chance to stow away on a ship. An unmistakable human presence emanates from the three houses, especially the one with a yellow light shining within. Is it friendly? Hostile? Indifferent? Possible stories and inferences emanate from these spaces as the sky shifts and roars.
Dennis has long befriended and collaborated with poets (her career-spanning monograph, Poet in Three Dimensions, is available at the gallery), so it is natural that the show invites poetic associations. The freighter on the horizon stays still as the sky changes, anchored in distant counterpoint to the houses on the loading dock. The ship’s steady presence put me in mind of the late Gordon Lightfoot’s ballad of Lake Superior lore and myth, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” chronicling the demise of the eponymous iron ore carrier in a November gale in 1975: “As the big freighters go/She was bigger than most,” he sings. The image also reminded me of Lorine Niedecker’s epic Lake Superior poem where she writes: “Iron the common element of earth/In rocks and freighters.” Dennis extends a remarkable invitation to imagine story, narrative, language, and myth from the darkened vantage point of the loading dock. It’s an opportunity to linger in that place of transformation, that slice of a world between worlds, both identical to and utterly other than the one we share.
“Donna Dennis: Ship/Dock/Three Houses and a Night Sky,” Private Public Gallery, 530 Columbia Street, Hudson, NY. Through June 11, 2023.
About the author: Iris Cushing is a scholar and poet living in the Catskill mountains. She is recently the co-editor of Mary Norbert Korte’s Jumping into the American River: New and Selected Poems (Argos Books/TKS, 2023). Her poems and critical writings have appeared in numerous publications, including Granta, Frieze, Fence, and the Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day series.