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 12½ 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.