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The New York Times

One of Donna Dennis’s architectural installations — a false tunnel entrance installed on the Mad River — so confounded local Ohioans that one morning in August 1981, someone pipe-bombed it. New York’s bomb squad confiscated part of another structure, a cabin occupying City Hall Park, in 1986. The works by Dennis are so faithful to existing vocabularies of infrastructure that they defy classification as art objects.

In 1970s New York, as painting and sculpture gave way to a gold rush of conceptualism, environments, performance and politics, the Ohio-born Dennis, fresh from art school in Minnesota and Paris, tuned into consciousness-raising women’s groups and devoted her craft to unsettlingly frank resemblances of buildings.

First came hotel and subway facades, then houses in the round — each a combination of construction and artist materials, and slightly too small to pretend functionality. (For lights she uses appliance bulbs, and her doors terminate at her eye level.) Since the ’80s she has gone industrial: room-size lift bridges, stairways, rail platforms, pump houses and roller coaster girdings that have increased in complexity as they lessen in number.

This month, the gates crack on this scarce and challenging oeuvre. The bellwether art gallery O’Flaherty’s has darkened its space on Avenue A to a dramatic degree, and filled it with five Dennis works from the 1970s and ’90s, for a show called “Houses and Hotels.” Whatever else they do, these shrines to vernacular architecture, humane, seductive and commanding, make clear that a godmother of installation art has been unwisely overlooked.

—Walker Mimms

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