Hudson (Show)Room, Artpace San Antonio
The most conspicuous feature of Trisha Donnelly’s work is its pronounced inscrutability. I am not alone in noticing this. Almost all writing on her work to date uses terms such as “elliptical,” “cryptic,” “hermetic” and “oblique” to characterize its resistance to critical interpretation. After encountering one such descriptor after another, I began to wonder if it is possible to translate inscrutability into an explanatory structure for Donnelly’s work as a whole. Perhaps its reticence to being analyzed is key to understanding how it operates. This led me to speculate that the work is not so much inscrutable as it is emphatic, categorical, unequivocal. Put another way, Donnelly seems to adopt a declarative mode of address of which obscurity is an inevitable byproduct, along with solemnity and earnestness—traits the work also exhibits.
Trisha Donnelly, Canadian Rain, 2002
Installation view, Hudson Show(Room) at Artpace San Antonio, 2005
Photo b Todd Johnson
A declarative statement, whether verbal, linguistic, aural or visual, does not solicit the kind of dialogue—the give and take, the back and forth—upon which interpretative activity is predicated. Because it is expressed with conviction yet requires no corroborating evidence, declarative statements invite a particular type of response: obedience or disobedience, as the case may be. Take Donnelly’s sound installation The Shield, for example. Installed on opposite sides of the gallery, two speakers broadcast synthesized, somewhat jarring music, but only intermittently. The music creates a sound barrier or invisible wall that periodically severs one part of the exhibition from the other. Ultimately, the viewer either respects this aural directive, by waiting to cross the threshold until a pause occurs, or not. In other instances, the viewer complies intellectually rather than physically, as with the video Canadian Rain, which shows the artist gesticulating emphatically and deliberately with her hands. This series of choreographed gestures harnesses a kind of incantatory, ritualistic power: every time Donnelly performs a gesture, the artist produces rain in Canada, or so she claims.
Similarly, one of the most beautiful works in the exhibition, the Untitled diptych from 2004, asks the viewer to embrace an altogether quixotic and idiosyncratic belief structure. The first part of the work, a drawing, appears in the main gallery. The second, a more ethereal, insubstantial version of the first, appears in the Artpace apartment on the other side of the gallery wall—not from having been installed there, Donnelly says, but rather by having penetrated the wall of its own accord. Insofar as they disregard the laws understood to govern physical reality, both Canadian Rain and Untitled require considerable suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer.
Works that operate in the declarative mode are generally non-referential, shunning both illusion and allegory; that is, they present rather than represent, which accounts in large part for their apparent self-sufficiency. Some of the works in the exhibition are manifestly abstract, such as drawings of cylinders suspended in the middle of otherwise blank pieces of paper. (In place of a conventional title, the artist substitutes a recording of percussive, synthesized music available only upon request at the reception desk downstairs.) However, other works clearly depict something, like the drawing The Slowness, or the black and white photographs The Black Wave and The Grounding.
In the end, these works only flirt with mimesis: what they represent remains, to varying degrees, elusive thanks to the techniques of cropping, fragmentation and decontextualization that Donnelly employs. Even when the work is demonstrably illustrative, the referent is so generic, as in The Volume, or so eccentric, as in the first part of Untitled, that the temptation to read it as abstract persists. Language is also subjected to a process of systematic abstraction. Indeed, the artist willfully exploits the material properties of words and letters, whether this involves distorting their spelling and orientation, as in the drawing The Passenger, or exaggerating their form to lyrical effect, as in the painting Untitled.
The question as to why Donnelly adopts the declarative mode remains. What does this particular mode of address allow her to accomplish? Carnegie Museum of Art’s Laura Hoptman might reply that it serves the purpose of expounding upon “the Ultimates,” those universal values and transcendental truths fundamental to human existence—the overarching themes of the 54th Carnegie International, in which Donnelly appeared. This is a bold claim to make; the work’s very inscrutability might be understood to interfere with its communicative function—to generate so much static that the viewer’s experience is handicapped rather than enhanced. At the same time, however, if it is enough for a work of art to simply produce, as art historian Richard Shiff has written, “the effect of meaning even if no external…meaning…can be applied,” then Donnelly’s work succeeds, for effect is in abundance here even if specificity is not.