Two one-person exhibitions at adjacent Wooster Street galleries share similar ambitions and tactical approaches to artistic production. Daniella Dooling at Anna Kustera Gallery and Holly Zausner at Caren Golden Fine Art both express themselves in a variety of media. In cast resin (Dooling), cast rubber (Zausner), neon (Zausner), video (Dooling), altered clothing (Dooling), painted Sculpty (Zausner), and photography (both), thee two artists exhibit a restless involvement with materials.
Any artist who works in this multi-media mode is relying on two primary objectives: the first is that the thematic choice is strong enough to bind the disparate mediums into a cohesive whole. The second is the requirement that dissimilar media should engage in a dialogue when exhibited together. The various media should become vocabulary and their effect on one another and arrangement solicit a syntactical structure. Markus Raetz, Gerhard Richter, Rosemarie Trockel and Rebecca Horn each demonstrate an ability to synthesize diverse artistic endeavors. At its most ambitious and successful, an exhibition has the narrative potential to equal any chapter by Thomas Mann, paragraph by Donald Barthleme or line by poet Basho.
The Anna Kustera Gallery is easily one of the best and most quixotic exhibition spaces in town. A long narrow hallway leads to an inviting, sky lit, split-level space. The two floors, open to each other yet distinct, allow for concurrent on-person shows, or as in Daniella Dooling’ case, an exhibition in two acts.
A video, four cast resin wall sculptures and a large scale photograph are the assembled act one. The video, Wardwalk, is the immediate commands attention. In seven-and-a-half minutes, Ms. Dooling emerges from an ambulance and is escorted by two paramedics past a bevy of flashing paparazzi into Bellevue Hospital. Once inside, she sheds a blue shawl to reveal that she’s wearing a dress festooned with thousands of fake fingernails. In the large square photograph to the right of the video monitor, Dooling is again in situ at Bellevue crouching before a gurney, her arm half raised. The dress’s detail, while not immediately apparent in the video, is finely documented in the photograph.
Accompanied by a downright catchy, sitar-laden musical track, Dooling in fingernail dress poses and languidly amble the halls and rooms of Bellevue. The moving camera, with flourishes of slow motion and purposeful distortion, adds a hallucinogenic aura to the work. Dooling’s consistent expressionless visage and hands-on hips demeanor are both parody and pantomime of the fashion catwalk that signal every new season of haute couture.
The wall sculptures, two to the left, one to the right and one over the gallery desk are amoebae-like objects that first act more as set décor than individual sculptures. The five-petaled shapes echo the curvaceous and graphic flowers of the late sixties and early seventies. They could have been lifted from a Sonny and Cher duet backdrop.
The white-frosted resin flowers are finely augmented by disk-like inserts of clear plastic. The disks are richly painted with nail polish from behind and imagistically fuse into biomorphic and microcosmic details. This is confirmed by their titles: Skin of Scalp and Hair Follicle. Reading the list of nail polish colors employed (as supplied in the checklist) is a sensory experience: chocolate mousse, bronze frost, bronze ice, racy crème, wet and wild 459A, mocha Java, Dracula, burgundy, clear. The effect is that of a sexually suggestive rap lyric that could be whispered into a microphone by Missy Elliot.
Act Two begins on the landing towards the lower level. It finds an assembly of four works: a sculpture, another wall amoebae, a photograph and a smaller monitored and mute video. The sculpture is breathtaking; a full-scale straight jacket is covered in sequins fashioned from 10,000 clear frosted fake fingernails, each sewn onto the heavy cotton fabric. The object, which is displayed in a museum-like Plexiglas vitrine, is both seductive in its elegant beauty and terrifying in its narrative impact. The finger-nailed bodice is suspended by a stainless steel support. It hovers with constricting potential. The visual attraction emanates from a plumage effect rather like a molting cockatoo. Further enhancing the attractiveness is its title Camisole, 1998, a euphemism for the unaltered object.
The photograph once again to the left of the centerpiece, pictures Dooling restrained in the Camisole. The photograph, taken with a shallow depth of field focus and tightly composed, alludes to both a helplessness and resignation. The scene being witnessed is not one of struggle or chaos, but one of recovery and hope.
One more step to the left, the second video satisfies the foreshadowing of wellness. In a continuous loop, Dooling spins deliriously center frame still wearing Camisole; however, her arms are unbound and extended. The camera too is twirling, and the backdrop for this dance of liberation is an uninterrupted loop of a 360-degree pan of the Agnes B. clothing boutique. The reintroduction of fashion as a subtext for freedom of expression is an intelligent touch.
Holly Zausner’s exhibition is contained in the single rectangular-roomed Caren Golden gallery. With white painted floors, the space has always had the air of an examination room. Nothing architectural ever interferes with the art on display.
Zausner’s primary iconography emanates from a looping emblematic form which is based on the female figure. Arms connect to legs, legs to an elongated torso often with a vulval flourish and cartoonish breasts. An ovoid head sits between the once again looping arms. This figure is the leitmotif of the exhibition with variations in neon, rubber, Sculpty and photography. The figure often bears a strong resemblance to a three dimensional Rorschach print or an animated figurine of Nancy Spero.
A set of six photographs document this figurine in a various contortioned poses straddled over the back of a Jacobsen chair. In front and to the left a Jacobsen chair sits with a flat cast rubber version of her abstracted female form.
A quasi-diptych, Love and Happiness, 1998 hovers towards the rear of the gallery. A neon version of Zausner’s female symbol is positioned a few feet above a black rubber cast of an IKEA cushion. A soft impression of a body can be read in the contours of the cushion. Two large-scale photographic collages act as visual parenthetical markers at the head and tail of the collection.
Zausner has photographed her limitless variations, cut them out and assembled them in a swarming and looping abstraction of accumulation. In these two works, Boogie Wonderland, 1998 and Dancing and Boxing, 1998, Zausner’s symmetrical iconography reads solely as a bevy of butterflies darkening the skies.
Another black-and-white photograph depicts a single variation, and is placed between the gallery’s two windows which overlook Wooster Street. This single form takes on a skull-like mien and is the strongest in graphic impact. In front and to the right is another sculpture entitled You Got Me Floating, 1998. In this work, a plaster slab elevated less than an inch above the floor acts as a pedestal for a limp rubber drawing of Zausner’s female idol. On two sides of the slab, the rubber is neatly trimmed to the edges of the plaster, and on the remaining two sides, the rubber languidly collapses to the floor in a puddle of gravity-borne weight.
Lastly, one more incarnation is on display behind the gallery attendant on an office shelf. It is a brightly colored fluorescent-orange Sculpty version twisting and turning upon itself. Although it seems from its placement to be an afterthought, I realized after browsing through a binder of color Xeroxes of Zausner’s earlier works that the bright figure is a forerunner of the current exhibition.
While Dooling is the younger of the two artists by about a decade, focus and maturity of theme are chronologically inverted. Each artist has a resolutely chosen theme, but, returning to the linguistic frame of reference, Dooling’s work is the more articulate. Each work in the Kustera exhibition attains a version of perfect pitch. Dooling intuitively reigns in her expressiveness, never allowing the dramatic to deteriorate into the melodramatic. The photographs reinforce this quality by being narratively suggestive but not illustrative. This tempered restraint is also evident in Dooling’s intelligent humor, which never dissolves into cynical parody.
Zausner’s focus is either broader or non-existent. One is left with the baffling impression that Zausner is a sculptor who is showing primarily flat two-dimensional work. The entire collection of work, barring the earlier office sculpty figure, denies its three-dimensional effectiveness. This refutation is also apparent in the materials she chooses. The rubber pieces fail to evince their inherent flexibility or elasticity. The white neon fails to properly engage or interact with its black rubber counterpart. There are some effective parts but the whole is elusive.
Dooling’s use of the photographic medium to document her sculptures opens up new avenues of interpretation. The add context and meaning to her sculptural objects and engage in a fervent dialogue with the neighboring works. Zausner, on the other hand, uses photography as a rather dry and static tool to document sculptures which have no concrete parallel in the exhibit. Zausner’s use of photography flattens any three-dimensionality existent in her work. In the case of the well-composed photo collages, she chooses to document work which already exists in a two-dimensional plane.
The technical execution the two artists’ harness also varies greatly. The causal, unkempt look of Zausner’s work has its moments of charm. Rough hewn work, however, needs a greater intentionality than is witnessed by her exhibition at Golden. The improvisational feel of the hand-worked Sculpty is more appropriate than the flooding puddle of drawn rubber.
Dooling has chosen a seamless presentational aesthetic, and it works well. Wardwalk has all of the appeal and high production values of an MTV video. It’s visually sumptuous and sexy in an odd voyeuristic way. The sitar music has a toe-tapping hum-along feel which is oddly pop, but also references a drug culture and the hallucinatory subject matter that is the leitmotif of Dooling’s work.
Even the video presentation is thoughtfully considered. The video monitors which doling employs are white and hang from institutional L-shaped wall mounts like those found in a typical hospital room. The allusionary cycle is complete: we’re transported back to the ward. And while the amoebae set of wall sculptures are perhaps the least engaging of Dooling’s oeuvre, her use of nail polish as a medium is a cunning treat which serves up some sensuous surfaces.
Lastly, Dooling’s acumen when titling her work is unparalleled. They nearly always augment the pleasure, yet never are so clever as to detract with boastful eye-winking self-absorption. Boogie Wonderland, Love and Happiness and Dancing and Boxing (examples of Zausner’s titles) are either desultory or enigmatically personal. Dooling’s choice of Camisole for the altered straight jacket is both sexually suggestive and harnesses a hospital euphemism to her evocative agenda.
Another aspect of Zausner’s work which again is either personal or arbitrary is the picture of herself at sixteen which adorns the invitation announcement. The teenage Zausner stares into the lens dressed in a bikini and holding a Beck’s beer. The image was intriguing when received in the mail, and still is, but it stubbornly has nothing whatsoever to do with the work in the exhibition.
Ultimately it is instructive to visit these contrasting bodies of work in a single afternoon. The strengths of one might point to the weaknesses of the other and vice-versa. Dooling proves herself a gifted conjurer of metaphor and visceral emotion while Zausner has developed an iconography which is malleable enough to take a wrong turn and which hopefully will get stronger for the detour.
The Syntax of Media: Daniella Dooling at Anna Kustera Gallery and Holly Zausner at Caren Golden Fine Art,” Review, November 15, 1998