Trisha Donnelly’s White Slabs: Exploring “art” at the Renaissance Society’s newest exhibit

Trisha Donnelly, by Sam Bowman

On entering the Renaissance Society’s fourth-floor gallery in the University of Chicago’s Cobb Hall, one could be forgiven for thinking that Trisha Donnelly’s exhibit had been packed up early and you, carelessly late, had missed it.

Unadorned white slabs stand alone in three of the room’s corners; a digital projector on an office chair casts a dizzying flicker on the fourth. An irregular piece of despair-colored Naugahyde sprawls over another office chair in the center. Closer inspection shows scattered lines of black ink. The back of each slab reveals two meticulous 8.25” x 11.5” ink and pencil works. This is LB 08 in its entirety, and Donnelly wants you to make of it what you will.

There’s nothing much to commend in a representative sense, but it’s no weakness. Musician and video artist Dan Deacon’s re-imagining of cell differentiation was my point of comparison for the video, though dribbling nail polish remover into red food coloring and wanting a Klonopin would work too. Some of the ink works recall scribbles germinating across a clean notebook. Another resembles a totem pole, perhaps from Donnelly’s tribe on the northwest coast of “THE 11th PRISMATIC,” the alternate dimension she has described in lectures. As Renaissance Society curator and contemporary art dean Hamza Walker writes, Donnelly’s work “is as it does.” Unhindered by medium or purpose, her work isn’t a celebration of found meaning so much as the acceptance of meaning’s potential to be found. More trenchantly, “the question of why becomes interchangeable with why not.” Why then, dear Hamza, should we care?

Walker suggests in his thoughtful but deeply unsatisfactory essay about the exhibit (which notably was written before Walker knew what the exhibit would be–when Donnelly premieres a piece, she doesn’t let the gallery know what to expect) that Donnelly’s work is simply “as free as the squirrels.” Even beyond the squirrel’s doubtless lack of polymathy (Donnelly’s achievements include inventing a martial art and lecturing on “THE 11th PRISMATIC,” the previously referenced alternate dimension) it’s a bad comparison. A squirrel cannot justify her existence with any other reason than her existence, but Donnelly’s work is more than mere being. It’s neither alienating nor subversive, and it’s certainly not not. Paradoxically, it relies on the inevitability of its viewers’ comparisons to something at the same time as Donnelly is proclaiming its glorious emancipation. That alone might condemn Walker’s thesis, but it doesn’t peel the ivy off the walls. Art that becomes “whatever” ceases to have value as “art.”

Donnelly would never claim to have a singular element, but it’s not hard to conclude that she’s out of it. While she shuns the term “performance artist,” her mostly performative work is far removed from the content of LB 08 and far more interesting to boot. There’s nothing intrinsically dull about the flight from meaning, especially the churlishly alienating sort that saturated the last century of art, even if there’s a certain predictability to it. For that, at least, Donnelly deserves no criticism. The uninspired laziness of the exhibit is another story. But your mileage may vary. The real question is whether LB 08 is worth walking up four flights of stairs. As Donnelly happily acknowledges, the choice is yours.