Under a Coaster, a Dream, or Maybe a Nightmare
‘Donna Dennis: Coney Night Maze’ Exhibition in Purchase

Published: August 2, 2013 - The New York Times

In 1996, during an outing to Coney Island, Donna Dennis found herself unexpectedly captivated by the Cyclone roller coaster. But it wasn’t the thrill of the ride or the enthusiasm of the crowds that drew her; it was the strange landscape beneath.

Ms. Dennis, an internationally exhibited artist known for her architectural installations, spent much of the next 13 years building “Coney Night Maze,” a monumental, labyrinthine structure inspired by the underside of the 86-year-old wooden landmark. Her piece now occupies a darkened gallery at the Neuberger Museum of Art, where the ghostly rattle of the ride can be heard in the distance.

In her work, a section of rickety track swoops upward over 12 feet high; another plunges down. Yet the heart of it is the tangle below, a convoluted environment of I-beams, dangling electrical cords and bits of barbed wire lit by rows of bare light bulbs, most of them burned out. Red and green ramps meander amid wood-planked walls. On the left is a rundown ticket booth, and deeper inside, another booth painted the same shade of blue. All this is visible behind — and sometimes obscured by — seemingly endless layers of white chain-link fencing.

“Coney Night Maze,” which is being exhibited for the first time, is a place of mystery and contradiction. The mazelike ramps and fences seem to direct passage but instead lead nowhere. Signs are posted throughout, but all are blank. “They’re supposed to tell you what to do but they don’t say anything,” Ms. Dennis said. “So what do you do with that?”

Like her previous works, “Coney Night Maze” is built at a slightly reduced scale. A red turnstile, for instance, stands less than five feet tall — too small for a person to fit into even if it did turn, which it doesn’t. The turnstile and several gates along the edges of the piece suggest another contradiction. “They invite you to enter,” Ms. Dennis said, “but you can’t get in.”

Ms. Dennis hopes these incongruities will compel visitors, who can explore the perimeter and peer in. “I want people to walk around and notice details,” she said. “I want them to wonder about the narratives inside.”

Why are lights on in the booths, as well as behind a window curiously built into the 27-foot-long rock wall that serves as the installation’s backdrop? “Maybe someone’s in there,” Ms. Dennis offered. “Maybe they’re asleep.”

And what about the sound? The haunting loop was created by the composer Dan Moses Schreier: several seconds of a faint, whooshing clatter, then silence. “It’s almost like the roller coaster is dreaming of itself,” Ms. Dennis said.

While the Cyclone conjures images of daytime pleasures, “Coney Night Maze” presents a nocturnal experience. “You’re coming into a dark space so your eyes have to adjust,” said Helaine Posner, the Neuberger’s senior curator of contemporary art. “Then as you walk around the piece, various components reveal themselves. This is a work that unfolds over time.”

Now a professor of art at Purchase College, Ms. Dennis, 70, gained recognition in the 1970s for her gallery installations of scaled-down tourist cabins and subway stations. “I’ve always been drawn to vernacular architecture,” she said, which she defined as architecture “that seems to have just kind of happened.”

Ms. Dennis’s attraction to improvisation infuses “Coney Night Maze,” her largest work to date. As with all her projects, it was prompted by an emotional response, in this case her excitement that day on Coney Island, where she took numerous photographs. Before long, her imagination had turned the teeming scene she had witnessed into a desolate one. “I notice what I notice,” she said, “then I make a piece to try to figure out why.”

To a degree, her methods are systematic, involving observation, documentation and the assembly of a model before construction. But her process is also intuitive, relying on ongoing reflections in her journals. “I look for things that will take me on a journey of discovery,” she said. “I love wondering what I’m going to find.”

Some of what she found while creating “Coney Night Maze” was shaped by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, which she saw from the TriBeCa loft where she has lived and worked for four decades. Afterward, the piece took on more sinister connotations. “I began to see the rock wall as a menacing presence looming over the fragile structure of the roller coaster,” she said.

Her fences, too, felt more threatening. “I saw pictures of all those layered fences at Guantánamo,” she said, “and there were fences in my neighborhood, too. I realized that the same thing had come about at the Cyclone: the fences were there to control people, to keep them from going where they weren’t supposed to go.”

There is, however, one segment of fencing at the front of the installation that is folded back on itself to leave an opening. The decision to leave that gap assumed growing significance for Ms. Dennis as the work developed.

“I started wondering, how would you actually reach the track?” she said. “The signs are no help, and if you got caught in the maze, you’d never get there. You’d get frustrated, you’d get lost, you might even get scared. But then you’d think, ‘Oh, I can just peel back the fence and go through.’ You’d break the rules. You wouldn’t give up. You’d find your own way.”


Erik La Prade, Art in America, November 2013

Donna Dennis has been creating "architectural sculpture" since her first commercial gallery show, at Holly Solomon in New York in 1975. Over the years she has exhibited with artists whose work has been categorized similarly, including Alice Aycock, Mary Miss, Jackie Ferrara and Siah Armajani. Coming of age during second-wave feminism, Dennis was uninterested in pure formalism and considered her own life to be a worthy subject for her art. She chose to make her constructions "personalized relics of urban life," as curator Richard Marshall wrote in a catalogue essay for a 1981 Whitney Museum group exhibition.

Illusion and reality are both endemic to Dennis's work. She doesn't re-create a structure so much as she reinvents it. Coney Night Maze (1997-2009), her largest piece to date at 12 1/2 by 27 by 19 feet, occupied the rear of the large windowless gallery at the Neuberger. Made of wood, acrylic paint, glass, metal and light fixtures, it sat on a low platform, the only illumination coming from within the installation.

According to Dennis, this project was inspired by the mazelike entrance of Coney Island's legendary Cyclone roller coaster. Viewers immediately encountered a labyrinth of ramps, walkways, and scaffolds, surrounded by chain-link fencing, and were restricted to a pathway around the perimeter. (Originally, she called it Coney Island Underbelly, but the title, like the work, evolved over a 12-year period.) Through a turnstile, two empty blue booths and a large rock protruding from the ground with a couple of orange traffic cones around it were visible. Sets of steps and several walkways painted red and green led to the roller coaster. The wooden tracks, flanked by red handrails, ascended in an arc from the floor to the ceiling.

One saw a sign reading "Cyclone" in raised, gold letters as one continued around the structure. At the back of the room, a high rock wall held in place by a scaffold contained a lone lit window, suggesting an inhabitant. A light in a window has been a motif for Dennis in the past. Her 1976 work Tourist Cabins, for example, features small bungalows illuminated from within. For the artist, these works are meant to be seen in the dark, with the interior light functioning like a warm heart in a body.

Eventually one became aware of a low, whispering sound of roller-coaster cars. This looped soundtrack, emanating from speakers on the walls, was also reminiscent of surf.

The name Coney Night Maze implies the fun and mystery of life. But when and where will the "maze" of our lives end? The installation seemed to suspend time. While much of New York's urban identity has been overrun with trendy bars and clothing boutiques, Coney Night Maze is a reminder of what is being lost. The isolated booths, wooden scaffolding and ghostly sound felt less like an homage and more like an altar to human endurance.

Coney Night Maze

by Robert Berlind - The Brooklyn Rail

We enter the Neuberger's expansive, darkened gallery and are drawn close to the large, complex sculptural installation that is Donna Dennis's "Coney Night Maze." Confronted by its cyclone fence perimeter, the viewer edges around to explore the richly detailed presentation, a section of Coney Island's famed Cyclone roller coaster. This is the area underneath, where once you lined up for tickets and again stood in line before boarding the car.

What looks at first like an assemblage of found materials is the result of individual fabrications that amount to careful replications of once practical things now, poignantly, at the end of their time. Years have passed; neglect is evident. The single bare bulb that lights the little blue ticket booth is one of many throughout the site. Most of them are burned out; the rest provide the only illumination in the nocturnal setting. Wooden ramps, the red turnstile, and even the fabricated I-beams all belong to an era long past. Portions of the track descend into view, irregular constructions unlikely to inspire even an imaginary rider's confidence. A bit of rock outcrop on the ground shows the structure's accommodation to its fictive site. A back wall of irregular rock some 27 feet long has bolts and-with an ingenious, irrational touch-a small, lit window. Even the barely visible scaffolding behind the architecturally contrived illusion seems integral to the whole.

We peer through the enclosing and distressed cyclone fence to wander mentally through impossibly narrow and blocked pathways, as though in search of our bearings. Examining the installation requires moving slowly around it, visually entering a succession of perspectives-and, by implication, multiple fragmentary narratives-none of which culminate in a satisfactory conclusion. The approach and the functional structure supporting the track have been spatially collapsed yet still seem plausibly operational. The strange combination of realistic details and their absurdist assembly is one of the keys to the work's fascination.

To dwell principally on Dennis's realism, whether approvingly or negatively-critics have done both-is to miss the poetic, mythic nature of her art. The framing of her subjects and selections of details (coupled with the astute realism of so many details) are governed by the work's poetic vision. Equally important is her use of scale. The sculpture's size being diminished by a quarter or so corresponds to the psychological distance of early memories. A corollary might be the experience of returning to a childhood site and finding it so much smaller than memory had it. Were the diminution greater, were it to seem like a miniaturized model, we would feel comfortably in control of the situation. Here the effect is understated, as though the subject's encapsulation in our mind required such downsizing.

"Coney Night Maze" is, in more ways than one, a time-based work. During the 13 years Dennis lived with and fashioned it, the sprawling, multi-part sculpture filled the studio adjacent to her living space, the time of its construction coexistent with her day-to-day life. A viewer may sense this long engagement through the complexity of the structure and, more pointedly, in its plenitude of metaphorical implications. Disassembled and transported from her TriBeCa studio to the Neuberger Museum, it is at least in part a diary of that long gestation.

The real life Cyclone experience was intended to be the ultimate thrill, the site of our daredevil ascents and plunges through space. But here in "Coney Night Maze" we are down under, cast in antsy anticipation or gnawing trepidation before that airborne adventure. If in our minds the ride itself represents the unbridled libido, this underneath place represents the darker realm of unconscious fears, conflict, and confusion. Far from the giddy freedom of hurtling along the precipitous track, we are confined and thwarted at every turn. Dennis's "Maze" is the opposite of the celebrated roller coaster, the downside of that symbol of sheer fun and liberation.

One criticism of the Neuberger installation: the periodic sound of the rickety roller coaster overhead does the piece a disservice. Possibly an ambient sound filling the darkened gallery, one that would support the work's dream-like character, would have worked, but the accompanying sound is too literal and is in any case unnecessary. It is the only slip in this otherwise extraordinary and affecting installation.

"Coney Night Maze" is the latest of a series of constructions that dates back to Dennis's famed "Tourist Cabins" (1976) and other sculptures that also imply worlds beyond their ostensible subjects: "Tunnel Tower" (1979-80), although an aboveground image, nonetheless signified the depths of the Holland Tunnel beneath the Hudson; "Deep Station" (1981-5), an imagined part of New York's subway domain. Like all of her works, these are convincing and richly evocative images.

Having begun her career as a painter and still a deft watercolorist, Dennis's sense of color and light and her pictorial imagination remain central to her art. She is of that American strain of deceptively straightforward artists whose work harbors the dark visions underlying Edward Hopper's cannily constructed paintings and Robert Frost's subtly haunted verse.

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