At around seven o’clock on the night of April 5, 2002, Trisha Donnelly stole my aesthetic heart. That evening, the then 28-year-old artist rode into her debut at the Casey Kaplan Gallery, outfitted like a Napoleonic soldier and astride a white stallion. The opening came to a standstill as the small crowd stared in stunned silence at this apparition.
Donnelly—whose bearing was regal, unruffled, but edgy—halted, surveyed the room, unfurled a scroll, and recited a brief, ornately worded proclamation that began, “If it need be termed surrender, then let it be so, for he has surrendered in word, not deed.” She finished, declaiming, “The emperor has fallen and he rests his weight upon your mind and mine, and with this I am electric. I am electric.” Then she turned and rode back into the New York night. By then, I was electric too. I didn’t know what this message meant, but felt that I had witnessed a historical event that never took place but should have—one steeped in fiction, poetry, and witchcraft, one that addressed the passing of epochs. In the afterglow, I realized that two years before, in the same spot, I’d had a premonition about Donnelly as I watched her give a lecture on communicating with seals at a group show opening. I remember thinking, “This artist is a believer. I should pay attention.”
Despite that alluring, paranormal performance, Donnelly’s debut was difficult, sparse, and hard to parse. It included a video of her performing what was supposedly a rainmaking rite in a Canadian forest, a sound piece involving a howling wolf and an ominous photograph of a black wave. Donnelly was full of fetching ideas, but her individual objects and the show itself were fairly forgettable. This usually spells doom for an artist. After all, everyone has good ideas; only select artists are able to embed them in material. As floored as I was by her performance, Donnelly’s debut suggested she lacked this crucial ability.
Yet I loved her work, or at least the essence of it. At first I thought I was just being a sap, that her art had exposed a soft spot in my taste. Now I see Donnelly as a member of a rarefied group of thoroughbred artists who, while good, don’t mount good gallery shows. Call this the Vito Acconci syndrome. It may be that for these artists the convention of the solo exhibition is a diversion, or that the white cube is too small in scope to command their interest. To them, gallery exhibitions are a kind of standardized ritual—artificial, totalitarian occasions that try to fit too much into too neutralizing a form. In fact, Casey Kaplan represents several of these artists, including Ceal Foyer, Carsten Höller (whose work is close in spirit to Donnelly’s), and Liam Gillick, whose shows are weak but who often shines outside galleries. Jorge Pardo fits in here as well, as does one of the best artists working anywhere today, Maurizio Cattelan, whose New York exhibitions aren’t as dazzling as his showstopping, site-specific works and his biennial contributions.
As for Donnelly’s current show, it’s more obscure and hippie-esque than her first. Among the 16 works are a handful of beautiful pencil drawings, an audio piece of someone chanting “Oh Egypt,” a postcard of the Sphinx’s paw, and digital photos of hanging swords. If I had to suggest an overarching theme, I’d say it was the search for a higher, imagined astral plane. But who knows? Even that’s a stretch. Donnelly did perform a moody, bluesy song about “stopping time” at the opening, after which she led the large crowd a few blocks north to the Wrong Gallery, where she arranged to have a cannon sound “to start time again.” But I won’t invoke the haughty “you had to be there” defense.
Ultimately, I suspect this show won’t captivate anyone who isn’t captivated by Donnelly already. Indeed, I hesitate to even recommend it. I only want to say that this is an artist who I think you can trust, a generous artist capable of taking you to an amorphous, inexpressible place past the conventions of late-conceptual art, the inanities of pseudo-mysticism, and her own inherent corniness. Writing about Jasper Johns in 1966, John Cage referred to “the thick presence all at once of a naked self-obscuring body of history.” That’s the type of history and presence Donnelly occasionally presents. In the same text, Cage added that it’s “a waste of time to mutter about inscrutability.” Similarly, if understanding is what you’re after, Donnelly is the wrong artist for you. She still doesn’t embed thought in materials. But she is finding ways to embed them in you. This is enchanting. If you get on her wavelength, you can have moments of wistful lucidity, the feeling that you’ve actually lived the experiences she makes art about. Laura Hoptman, who put her in the current Carnegie International (where Donnelly, having told no one, acted as a waiter at the show’s tony opening dinner), says that “empathy, a deep sense of our collective humanity—our transcendent ideas as well as our frailties—are her greatest artistic weapons.” To that, and in support of Donnelly and all those otherwise inscrutable artists, I’d add, long live difficult art.