When Madison Donnelly showed her sculpture, “User Centered Design,” at the 2017 Statewide Annual Exhibition, it was outstanding in a field of more conventional works. As a photo that ran in 15 Bytes at the time reveals, even the staff at Rio Gallery seemed to think so: in contrast to the otherwise democratic, side-by-side array of works in a group show, they placed Donnelly’s pine and molded plaster chair within a ring of empty space. And indeed, it did stand properly apart from the representational and abstract paintings and sculpture that surrounded it, though exactly why it didn’t fit comfortably with its contemporaries wasn’t immediately clear. Last week, Donnelly staged her own show of recent works, Holding Wrong, featuring primarily her work, but in collaboration with four friends who contributed peripheral installations and a performance during the opening. In so doing, she afforded her work sufficient critical mass to speak clearly and added a vibrant new voice to the local art scene.
Holding Wrong, with six titled pieces and several charming, untitled additions, took place in a disused storefront on the second floor of Trolley Square. This gigantic and atmospheric industrial space, which has gone largely wasted due to the ongoing decline of retail shopping, offers one of our richest potential settings for showing art in what has come to be seen as a popular and appropriate environment. In fact, Trolley calls to mind the DIA Foundation, longtime owners of many Western art treasures, including Spiral Jetty and, most recently, Sun Tunnels, which began a project years ago to find and salvage reinforced concrete buildings throughout the nation for similar purposes. In addition to the dressing rooms that served her collaborators as installation and performance spaces, which are properly artifacts of the building’s retail history, Donnelly used the massive roof trusses as supports from which to hang several of her pieces. More importantly, the brutal brick walls and cobbled floors of the surrounding structure, even when ameliorated by the defunct store’s lumber floor and gypsum partitions, contributed to the overall alienation of the objects from their viewers, which has become all-but-necessary to avant-garde and Contemporary art exhibition, but also offered a perfect complement to Madison Donnelly’s theme and purpose.
It’s a truth gradually becoming apparent, even to the habitually clueless, that men and women live largely in different worlds. That this isn’t publicly recognized is due in no small part to men’s control of the ideological discourse, which in America primarily means the mass media: television, radio, and newspapers, certainly, but also books and their once-great partner, formal education. Men assume their lives make up the real world, which they depict with dubious accuracy in those media, and take it as their right to withdraw into men-only activities where they can pursue behavior they don’t want the media to reveal or dwell on. Women, in turn, accept that their lives will be trivialized, rendered insubstantial, and that their efforts to join together, even for the most harmless experience of community, will be interpreted by men as hostile to them. Of course, women have always joined together in their own communities, within which they are quite conversant with the inequity of their relative status, but until very recently, the truths they shared, unlike the truths men share, were considered “feminine truths” by the mass media, as opposed to the “universal truths” known to men.
Holding Wrong, then, represents the emergence of such a community of women into the public sphere. I do not say this to diminish it; in fact, we have had men’s stories and men’s art for millennia, and the emergence of women’s experiences as a legitimate route of access to the more elusive characteristics of reality is cause for rejoicing. No longer need we search for new ways of speaking essential truths that have grown old, tired, and most of all, too familiar.
The work of bringing the hidden, other half of human experience begins with removal of the lies and half-truths that kept it mostly out of sight until now. In her new work, Donnelly focuses on what she calls “feminine domestic space,” by which she means not so much three-dimensional space as discursive space: space to perceive, think of, and speak about. That said, she does use physical space most effectively as a metaphor, as befits all art, and in particular sculpture. Each piece here invokes a cliché of feminine “space”—bed sheets, curtains, wishing wells, claw foot bathtubs, and even the circle of five individuals whose continuing conversation carries forward the eternal community of women. Except for the last, which takes place almost out of sight and slyly evokes the salon that brought forth this group effort, each of the works sets out to deny the possibility of ever fully inhabiting any of these clichés. If women don’t feel at home, Donnelly argues, it’s because their assigned social roles, and their accessories, are not of their choosing. In “Bed I,” the bedsheets are formed into bricks, which despite their function still say nothing more strongly than they do “laundry day.” These are assembled into a water well, in which the role of water is played by a disk cut from the pleated top of a mattress. It might be a magic dream, were there only some way to lie down, sleep, and dream in this inappropriate mechanism, which in spite of looking nothing like a bed recalls Procrustes’ mythical couch, which ruinously stretched or lopped off parts of those who lay down on it, until they fit.
In “Bath,” meanwhile, matched bedsheets have been fashioned into a shower curtain, as if to cement the association of bedroom and bathroom—not for sleeping and personal use, it seems, but as two places that share a need to be cleaned. In fact, the way Donnelly has tied up the shower curtain recalls the way women traditionally gathered up, and in the working classes tied up, their skirts to keep them dry or unsoiled. These pieces require as much rumination on and recourse to historical memory as any, but surprisingly, the associations are more accessible than might be expected. All that’s required is a change of learned values. Some terms, like “bed” and “couch,” require mental adjustment, but then part of the gender divide has always been about whose language is superlatively evocative and whose is merely concrete: furnace, a place where men work or where great events are forged; stove, a place where your wife cooks your dinner.
Two of her works here are a tour-de-force pair: “Bed II” and “Bed Core.” The former is a stack of three mattresses, into which she has bored a hole large enough for someone to climb into. Having given “get into bed” a wholly new meaning, she fashions a rope of knotted sheets, such as has been used in fable and fact to climb up or down, escape, elope, or even end one’s life, and dangles it into the hole, where due to the angle of view it disappears from sight. Standing before this construction, the urge to climb down into the hole, or at least to see what climbs out, is palpable. This orifice, which reveals the layered structure of the mattresses the way disaster exposes a cross- section of a building, or erosion reveals millions of years of history in places throughout the Southwest, looks as if it could have been blasted out by a laser or other science fiction weapon, so cleanly was it cut. But eventually the realization dawns that the nearby piece, a tower that bears an uncanny, if reversed resemblance to the hole in the mattresses, is actually the missing, excised part. The two are a pair, and viewers can, if they wish, mentally insert one part back into the other, as if taking two fragments and restoring the whole.
The respective status of women and men isn’t the only issue this art raises. We have an entire missing art movement today, which is nowhere more clearly invoked than in two recent shows: this one and Frank McEntire’s at Nox Contemporary. Consider: when a handful of French artists undertook to correct what they saw as flaws in Impressionism, they started with what was arguably the most popular art in Europe and North America. Post-Impressionism, as the work of van Gogh, Seurat, and their peers has come to be called, shared in the audience’s enthusiasm for the art it reacted against. Something similar, but in reverse, has happened in the last half-century with Minimalism and Post-Minimalism. Neither has achieved the broad popularity, or even the society-wide recognition, of the earlier school. Yet Minimalism, with its emphasis on using found materials and subjects, is an essential and continuing influence on much vital work being done by the artists of our time. By exploring the meaning and significance of commonplace, yet symbolically enormous everyday materials and the activities that surround, utilize, and consume them, both these artists, and many more around the world, continue to critique a materialist society whose impulses, for good or bad, have brought it into direct conflict with the natural world. To this emphasis on pre-existing material goods, Donnelly adds another dimension with her “scanned, stitched, and 3-D printed” claw foot hybrids, some of the most beautiful and uncanny objects around.
Nobody is doing more important work.
As mentioned earlier, there were four artists whom Madison Donnelly invited to show works on related themes alongside hers in the gallery. Stef Leaks, Christina Jones, Nikita Abraham, and Sayde Price created installations in dressing rooms remaining from when this space housed a retail clothing store. Price also presented a Performance during the opening. All four deserve further attention, and my failure to do so here is down to my lack of time, and not to their merit. I expect to see more of them in future exhibitions.
The exhibition is open today only, May 15, by appointment. Contact Madison Donnelly at firstname.lastname@example.org to see it.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.