DENISE BARTELS AND JESSICA DUNNE

by Suvan Geer



Jessica Dunne, "Red Palm I,"
monotype, 24 x 36", 1994.

 

 



Jessica Dunne, "One-Way Street,"
monotype, 22 x 36", 1995.

(Brand Library Art Galleries, Glendale) The paintings of Jessica Dunne make you think that Edward Hopper's idealized urban emptiness makes a perfectly logical visual segue into Jean Baudrillard's paean to the American experience of driving as a "spectacular form of amnesia." Hopper got the sterile emptiness of American cities right and Dunne plays with it, but she also picks up Baudrillard's bitter captivation with our continent's vast space in her images of nocturnal, mist- cocooned streets and vacant bridges. Ultimately, you can't help agreeing with her that fog and modern trafficways do make a particularly romantic metaphor for critiquing urban forgetfulness and haunted isolation.

Dunne's streets are the sterile, vacuous sites of industrialized everywhere and nowhere. Wrapped in shrouds of fog they seem disconcertingly familiar yet forever strange. Even when they are as identifiable as San Francisco's Bay bridge they often bury their sense of place behind the blank urban sameness of an endless under- ground tunnel or a streetlighted empty crosswalk at the edge of miles of syn-chronized stoplights at midnight.

Dunne presents the city as the illuminated infrastructure of Baudrillard's machine. Humanity is the invisible ghost encased in a headlight/taillight web of speeding cars, and bright but blank apartments for whom the street lamps are all lit, but no one walks the streets. Details like an abandoned orange surfboard propped up against graffiti-covered, sand-filled bridge barriers and bright swimmer's buoys cheering up a grey industrial waterline of steaming factories lend a rationale of danger to Dunne's haloed and glittering roadways. We are left considering humanity's technological conquest of darkness, as well as a deeper darkness which holds us captive.

Denice Bartels' burnt or blackened house sculptures are solid little icons of the tormented American dream. Begun on the evening of the L.A. uprising, when the artist locked herself in her downtown studio, feeling at once both safe and imprisoned, the sculptures tell dual stories of survival and pain. Small in scale, each sculpture is a simple, childlike rendition of the concept of 'house,' which immediately summons up childhood utopian expectations of perfection and safety. Windowless and doorless, they sit on the floor like charred lumps of charcoal or toys found after a fire, exuding a stunned air of melancholy and loss of innocence.


At least for a while. Then, like blades of green grass carpeting the Yosemite valley after the fires, odd bits of wire, sturdy ladders, haloes and pencil legs begin sprouting from the burnt little boxes. With their sharply pitched roofs and humble scale each reads as an individual's narrative of survival, realization or renewal. Later house forms retain blackness like a skin but have crisp, unfired edges. The surface is no longer a brittle, crusted scar but now a sharp, fire-sooted blackboard. As such it seems to channel a longing for nature and more peaceful times in the simple terms a child might use, all pale memories of flowers, trees, and swings. But these simple pleasures register on the black walls like grey silhouettes, recalling the startled bodies X-rayed onto the sides of buildings by the A-bomb blast at Hiroshima.

Accompanying her house sculptures Bartels shows several tender little black and white Xerograph drawings on acetate that revel in the romance of house as an enigmatic sign. The drawings, as chunks of transparent raw wood, simply delight in their shape as pregnant meaning. The use of transparency to undermine the notion of solidity could undoubtedly have all sorts of levels of psychological implication but, for me, their beauty lies in the way they make their sign for house a transparent, slippery but wonderfully basic piece of visual poetry.

 

Denise E. Bartels, "Untitled
(Ladder House),"
wood, 1995.

 

Denise E. Bartels, "Untitled
(Burned House),"
15 x 11 x 12", pine, 1992.