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“Non-objective art as I see it removed the referential (idea-identity) from painting—demanding personal sensual involvement as the only accurate human communication.”
Trisha Donnelly does not give away much. Known for her enigmatic images, performances, and installations, she does not allow reproductions of her work to be published. In the case of her recent exhibition at Matthew Marks Gallery in West Hollywood, she insisted on skipping the traditional press release as well. Donnelly has earned a polarizing reputation as an artist known for creating moments of doubt, moments of confusion, and most importantly, moments of wonder. In a time when most art is instantly posted, shared, double-tapped, and swiped, Donnelly’s work demands a refreshingly direct engagement with her audience. She maintains a clear consideration of the viewer throughout her practice; she does not make art merely to be looked at or mused over. Her work is meant to be felt.
Describing an experience with words can undo it; abstracting a feeling with language can result in failure. Donnelly’s ephemeral installation presents a similar challenge. Split between two gallery spaces half a block apart, the show forced the viewer to leave the confines of the gallery as they traveled between spaces. One gallery was a vast, dark space dimly lit by abstract images that were projected on the walls at oblique angles. The room was accompanied by a soft muzak that played through large, casually installed speakers. Blacked-out skylights caused columns of darkness to rise up to the ceiling. Daylight bled in around a roll up door while fleeting rays of light mysteriously pierced the space at irregular intervals. Walking out of this dramatically darkened space, with its subtle tricks of light, the warmth and light of the outdoors were a shocking interval between the two gallery spaces. Naturally lit via subtle daylight diffused through scrimmed windows, the second gallery offered a refreshing compliment to the first. The space felt softer and less confrontational than the first and offered a more traditional experience: Two vague photographs that appeared to be accidental exposures, a medium-sized abstract drawing, and a looping animation of clouds projected onto a wall, and slowly rolled towards the ceiling, mimicking the vast columns of darkness in the previous space which called the eyes upward. The works offered little concrete information, aside from the mood they evoked. Further description of the work would compromise the experience, something that Donnelly strictly avoids. She is a powerful aesthetic teacher, unyielding in her vision. She teaches by way of sensual experience—her solution for the shortcomings of language—and she articulates her method well.
By setting up a series of Dualistic relationships throughout her exhibition, Donnelly continually reminded me of my position relative to the work, to the space, and to myself. While walking through the exhibition, I experienced various of states of viewing: inside of the gallery, outside of the gallery, in front of the work, within the work, looking down onto the work, peering up to the work, standing next to the work, understanding the work, and not understanding the work. Each transition between these modes of viewing disrupted my expectations of the usual reserved remove that is often felt in contemporary art galleries. Instead the work involved me on an emotional level; the dynamic experience was empowering. It is within these perceptual shifts that Donnelly acknowledges the viewer and invites them into a conversation; a conversation that began right here in Los Angeles circa 1965.
In Robert Irwin’s “Statement on Reproductions”, which first appeared in the June 1965 issue of Artforum, the Light and Space artist stressed the primacy of the direct experience of the work, a preference that would influence a generation of artists and help introduce a new phenomenological approach to contemporary discourse. For Donnelly, this notion rings as true as ever in a world ruled by emotionless technology: she rejects screens and their digital reproductions wholesale and reminds the viewer of the value and potency of the in-person aesthetic experiences.
Donnelly articulates various emotional states of being in deft detail while allowing variance and chance to illuminate these deep truths. In one particularly moving moment while sitting in near-total darkness, I was beholden to a vast yet comfortable void, only to be suddenly and ecstatically engulfed in daylight. The mechanisms involved—a plastic sheet loosely draped over a skylight—were as simple as they were effective; the experience they created far surpassed their humble means. It caused me to question the location of “the work,” does it exist in the materials, or in the experience? I was confounded by the theatricality of the moment, it was simultaneously off-putting and enrapturing. The work seemed to call into question the limitations of the average art object in the face of the natural world. In a universe ruled by powerful natural forces and random chance, the static art object in contrast can feel vulnerable and mute.
It is Donnelly’s subtle surrender to these unknowable forces that accentuated this series of surreal experiences and elevated the grouping of objects, images and spaces into a realm of spiritualism rarely associated with austere blue chip galleries. While taking in the show one may have found themselves repeatedly looking upwards, towards the clouds and towards the light. Maybe there are answers up beyond the skies, or maybe there are more questions.
 Robert Irwin, “Statements on Reproduction”, Artforum 3, no. 9 (June 1965), 23
Trisha Donnelly was on view from September 26–November 7, 2015 at Matthew Marks Gallery (1062 North Orange Grove and 7818 Santa Monica Boulevard).
Originally published in Carla Issue 3.