REVIEW: Art critic Jonathan Goodman on The LAB’s Summer 2011 Show ‘Projected Drawings’ by Helen Dennis

Helen Dennis at The LAB

Educated both in England and America, Helen Dennis has decided to stay on the States, where she appreciates the openness of the art world she participates in. Part of this freedom has to do with the styles and themes the artist has chosen–Dennis works figuratively, primarily describing architecture and outdoor street life in white on black drawings; she takes numerous snapshot photos of her chosen site, then projecting them onto black paper and painting or drawing the images according to her photographic guide. For the current project at The LAB (on through September 2nd), Dennis has used the corner gallery space as an ongoing experimental site, rendering the roads—47th Street and Lexington Avenue—and their buildings, which have been projected from numerous photographic snapshots fitted together. As a result, her stay at the gallery means several things at once: a chance to see someone work on a big picture, the ability to see the work develop over time, and the opportunity to consider the relations between the rendered image and the actual visual cues that inspired it.

Dennis, who is at great pains to be precise and accurate in her vision, has been using markers filled with reflective silver paint, which is applied to black paper put up on the wall; the work’s presence at night is spectacular, animated by a spectral glow that is never diffuse because of the right-angled architectural features she is presenting to her audience. The results are wonderfully visual: the iridescence of the silver results nearly in an image that looks like it is electrically lit! Of course, that isn’t Dennis’s point, which is instead oriented toward a poetic re-presentation of the city, at a site whose coordinates match those of the streets immediate outside it. Dennis, whose activities and friendships are truly international in their implications, shows us just how urban—and urbane—we have become in New York, one of the great art capitals of the world. Although the blocks framing the gallery do not stand out to the casual passerby, it is clear that the artist is using them as a reference to the seen reality of a city street, whose rhythm and building supports both are captured by Dennis’s skillful renderings. And it is a wonderful thing to be able to track imagined realism with the actual objects themselves, however close or loose relations might be between the two.

Two of the four walls consist of glass windows, allowing a casual viewer passing by outside to gauge the two other walls, which Dennis has covered with black paper. She has complete command of perspective, given the sharp angles of the buildings and streets she presents by using the markers. Rows of windows are caught, and their angled parallelograms are filled in, leaving a very bright impression of a façade; other urban details are paid attention too: streetlamps, one-way traffic signs, and, a favorite object of Dennis’s, bicycles. In a way, it would be easy to view Dennis’s journey as an impressionistic attempt to give the city its due, but my feeling is that she is offering more than a map of New York. It has something to do with the ambience of the city, an unspoken presence that is captured by Dennis’s playing close attention to detail—for example, on the second wall, there is a door leading to the hotel space the gallery is part of; Dennis has accommodated its access by drawing carefully across, to the point where the outline of the door is difficult to see. Dennis, a gifted craftsperson, also knows how New Yorkers are often emotional, even triumphalist about the experience of their city. As someone coming from England, she keeps her affection for New York in practical restraint, even as she makes it clear that she too loves the everyday experience of America’s great metropolis.

By Jonathan Goodman

The LAB (for installation + performance art) is a New York based, converted storefront producing fast paced performance art and site-specific installations. Viewable exclusively from the sidewalk and aimed at the furious midtown foot traffic, The LAB’s exhibitions seek to throw a moment of uncertainty into the predictable monotony of the midtown shuffle, forcing an interaction between the high energy, “outrospective” work it produces and the nearly 25,000 daily passersby. The LAB is located on the North East corner of 47th and Lex and is a Roger Smith Collaboration

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