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 wasnt
the thrill of the ride or the enthusiasm of the crowds that drew her;
it was the strange landscape beneath.
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.
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.
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. Theyre supposed to tell
you what to do but they dont say anything, Ms. Dennis
said. So what do you do with that?
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 doesnt. The turnstile and several gates along
the edges of the piece suggest another contradiction. They invite
you to enter, Ms. Dennis said, but you cant get
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.
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 installations
backdrop? Maybe someones in there, Ms. Dennis offered.
Maybe theyre asleep.
what about the sound? The haunting loop was created by the composer
Dan Moses Schreier: several seconds of a faint, whooshing clatter,
then silence. Its almost like the roller coaster is dreaming
of itself, Ms. Dennis said.
the Cyclone conjures images of daytime pleasures, Coney Night
Maze presents a nocturnal experience. Youre coming
into a dark space so your eyes have to adjust, said Helaine
Posner, the Neubergers senior curator of contemporary art. Then
as you walk around the piece, various components reveal themselves.
This is a work that unfolds over time.
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. Ive always been drawn to vernacular
architecture, she said, which she defined as architecture that
seems to have just kind of happened.
Denniss 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.
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 Im going to find.
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.
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 werent supposed to go.
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
started wondering, how would you actually reach the track? she
said. The signs are no help, and if you got caught in the maze,
youd never get there. Youd get frustrated, youd
get lost, you might even get scared. But then youd think, Oh,
I can just peel back the fence and go through. Youd break
the rules. You wouldnt give up. Youd find your own way.
N.Y. DONNA DENNIS
La Prade, Art in America, November 2013
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Robert Berlind - The Brooklyn Rail
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Letter From Richard Snow