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My first glimpse of one of Cheryl Donegan’s paintings was in a group exhibition in 2013. I was, embarrassingly enough, totally unfamiliar with her paintings. It made immediate sense to me that an artist who had cut her teeth making video works was able to transpose their sense of social commentary onto her formal works. Her current exhibition at Sgorbati Projects places the artist’s paintings and videos in immediate dialogue with one another. It is in this fuller context that one is able to appreciate the work as a product of the artist’s very particular, peculiar world view.
The four videos on display, all relatively recent works, form a direct link to the artist’s earlier videos. For those unfamiliar, Donegan came to prominence in the early 1990s when she made a series of videos that presented herself enacting various fictionalized roles and physical tasks. Her video “Head” depicted the artist drinking a flow of milk from a large plastic container. This video is unnerving: it harnesses the psycho sexual tension we are inundated with by modern advertising, and illustrates with humorous physicality the stereotypes placed on female sexuality. Her “Kiss My Royal Irish Ass” took a shot directly at the idea of the painter as romantic master. (Her artist character makes ad-hoc shamrocks on paper by dipping her buttocks in paint.)
On the gallery wall, her 1998 video “Alive! Artist! Model! Pleasure!” casts Donegan’s sister and several of her friends from their local high school drama club singing the title song from Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis’s 1955 film Artists and Models. Traipsing across a stage, the adolescent stars wave their hands in full camp-glory and re-enact Donegan’s early videos, presenting a kind of abridged history of the artist’s work. This never-before-seen film serves as an homage and an end cap to the artist’s early role as the primary star of her films. Since 2000, a majority of the artist’s video output has been sourced from social media such as YouTube and other found content.
With an eye to the same controlling external forces that are satirized in her early work, Donegan cherry-picks images that are full of the anxiety and disorientation of our contemporary landscape. Her “I Still Want to Drown” mashes home video footage of objets d’art displayed on slick, metal shelves in luxury apartments with re-recorded footage of the movie Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, a 1975 film largely concerned with the crushingly mundane aspects of domestic life. Cast in a bookend at the beginning and end of the movie, Donegan briefly appears undressing before a mirror. The video is self-possessed and silently smirking, and its anthropomorphic characters are equally as manic as those in the artist’s earlier works. The perverse enthusiasm of a real estate model; the sad, shadowy doubly voyeuristic image of a woman engaged in domestic labor; and the sickly veneer of objets de crap all coalesce into a cold sweat hallucination of what I hope will never seem like happiness to me. The effect is haunting; it belies what seems to be Donegan’s preoccupation with the forces that exert influence over our lives.
Her video “Blood Sugar” presents a hallucinatory flash of runway models, textiles, and photographic images that pile up and vibrate anxiously against one another. The resulting flow of imagery is a disorienting reflection of how dependent we have become on the rapid, often unintentional consumption of images. The convulsing plaids and flannels that assault the screen seem to suggest a sort of frantic cultural heartbeat.
In the next room, Donegan’s paintings translate the artist’s focus on the forces that shape our shared visual environment. The strength of these works is in their ability to shift, twist, and resist your gaze. Her “Untitled Resist (purple and pale blue)” and “Untitled Resist (faded navy and pink)” are immediately confusing and striking. They seem to contain some sort of encoded message, an unreadable blueprint of undecipherable wisdom. Their long, disjointed passages float eerily in relationship to one another. The composition of her “purple and pale blue” reminds me of a high school punk band: it’s gawky, artfully devoid of charm, and barely conceals anger. The washy, awkward colors pulse against found textile backgrounds. These two paintings have all the physical immediacy and visual presence of large-scale abstract paintings. They certainly seem to reference the mark-making of post-war painting, but are actually made by using a dye process most similar to batik. The artist applies her pre-planned marks using a glue resist directly onto the surface before dying, and removing said resist. Her marks might seem improvisational, or impromptu at first glance. Prolonged looking proves this to be untrue. Each mark is thoroughly considered, a fact made more apparent by the reductive design.
Donegan’s paintings are in part a riff on Rem Koolhaas’s idea of Junkspace, an influence she has mentioned often. Once initiated with this knowledge, Donegan’s jaunty, disrupted marks begin to vibrate with the disjointed energy of shitty mall architecture. Though each work is derived from a direct reference, the works’ success is marked by the ability to evoke the feeling of these spaces. Pulsing against their gingham backgrounds, in relatively electric (if not muted) fields of color, the works possess the same aimless, wandering sensation evoked by the spaces that helped inspire them.
Across the gallery, “Untitled (yellow and hot pink)” and “Untitled (mauve and citron yellow)” use a makeshift stencil to throw the otherwise harmonious pattern into a fray of disjointed brushstrokes. These works build upon and ultimately dismantle their own internal structures, avoiding the harmony of the grid through careful study. Each composition is re-worked; its lines shifted off their typical axis and meticulously trained to misbehave. The result is a visual system that foregrounds its own dysfunction.
Sitting on its own wall, “Grey Folds” vibrates with eye-popping optical effect. Its unruly tangle of checkers is actually a photograph of collaged fabric that has been printed upon its support. This belies Donegan’s core strength. Her paintings are agile. They embody the sort of restless, constant movement you might expect from a champion lightweight boxer fighting out of his/her weight class. Just when you think you have one pinned, you are forced to look again. Works that one might call “painterly” at first glance are remarkable for their conceptual underpinnings. Others are striking for their hodgepodge aesthetic — they resist looking polished, neat, or overly crafted, but are in reality extremely well made. It is this ability to play upon and fully resist expectations that marks the undeniable success of these works.
Cheryl Donnegan Paintings and Videos continues at Sgorbati Projects (525 West 26th St. 5th Floor) through February 21.