The Image of Trisha Donnelly at Matthew Marks

Review: Trisha Donnelly
Matthew Marks, Los Angeles
September 26–November 7, 2015
Travis Diehl
2 Trisha Donnelly_Untitled copy

Trisha Donnelly, Untitled, 2015. Gelatin silver print on ilford paper. Image: 10 x 9 7/8 in. Sheet: 14 x 11 inches. © Trisha Donnelly. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery.

But when I get home to you                                                                                                                                          I find the things that you do                                                                                                                                   Will make me feel alright.

— The Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night (1964)



The black bar of an Ellsworth Kelly sculpture marquees the tall, white façade of Matthew Marks’s Orange Grove building. In its upper right corner, on this particular day, is a sunbleached splat of bird shit. Few artworks can withstand such contingency. For Trisha Donnelly, though, the happy accidents that artists tend to cultivate or suppress have reached a revocable poise, as if contingency—like the aesthetics of water and sky, light and apparatus—is another of her materials. Through the entrance, around the corner, across the darkened main gallery, the innermost of two access doors stands ajar; sun leaks in around the outer. A huge loading door, usually sealed and finished invisibly flush to the wall, is left exposed, its ragged outline also lightly nimbused. The wind picks up; one of the tarps covering each of the gallery’s six skylights puffs open in erratic, billowing pulses. Its pattern, buoyed by light, is beautiful. The tarp seems to dance; over time the tarp’s slow flashes start to synch with and pass attention to the large projection that is the room’s (and show’s) main event: an image of an isometric wavescape, pixelated spikes, all strobing between positive and negative, on and off. In the top left of the picture, a red line tracks up and down a bar—a meter, a code, or a frenetic, pointless sweep. The video resembles an instrument, maybe, perceiving unknown energies, or else a transmitter of invisible forces. The projected image exceeds, in one corner, what at first appears to be the poorly keyed quadrilateral of “black” thrown by the projector but is in fact a dim shape within a projected field too faint to see in a show daylit through cracks and tarps, brightened by the spillover of projections. The tarp isn’t opaque; it wavers between grays. Really the projector is pretty well keyed. Really the show is finished. The tarp flaps like an analogue to the projection’s binary, as if reading a series of perfectly ephemeral peaks and valleys above the skylight’s bulge. Facing the large projection from the back of the gallery, three rows of airport seating offer the banal comforts of a waiting room. This is the furniture of liminality, slightly askew, as if not on display but in storage. Schmaltzy strains of instrumental Beatles covers play from the dark forms of a clunky PA haphazardly placed near the access doors. It’s not just the waves of muzak  that figure, somehow, the paradox of Donnelly’s show, but an instrumental lounge cover of the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night”—the dialectical refrain of a pop song, one I knew without the words.

Now that the show has come down, Donnelly’s art organizes itself not linearly, not down the page, but discursively, in porous mnemonics. This is partly because (per Donnelly’s usual wishes) the show makes remarkably little effort to explain itself as anything other than, to quote the press release, an “exhibition of works by Trisha Donnelly.” The press release is sparse unto parody; the one work of which an image was made available is untitled, and the gallery does not provide a checklist.1 For those who think a certain and complete knowledge is possible, let alone desirable, Donnelly’s reticence could seem pretentious, alienating, alien. Such was the lockdown on paratext that the late addition of printouts of a review of the exhibition, stacked on a desk where the checklist would otherwise go, seemed to breach the ban on interpretation.2 A smart review takes the place of PR by offering the most complete expression of what the show was—but can carry so much (accidental) weight only in an exhibition that, in every other aspect, takes itself and its audience seriously enough to shun the patronage of a ready summary.

For Donnelly, oblique dispatches and open doors compose the outlines of self-reflexive critique. These could also be considered hopeless inside jokes about art display, gallery protocol, the art world, even the art market. Certainly Donnelly’s misdirection and withholding unfold in regard to something sullenly deconstructed by half a century of conceptual art: the commercial gallery. Matthew Marks is a particularly stunning example; on a good day, its roughly cubic main Orange Grove space softly, evenly glows with preternatural sunlight evocative of the whited-out nonspaces of 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Matrix. In a context normally so codified, so prim, Donnelly’s thinnest choices present as interventions. Exiting the Orange Grove building, one notices what was at first blown out by the light of the open front door: another projection. A vertical image, about two feet tall, looks like water trickling around two bars of soap and over a bath mat, or the puddle of a developing photo. The image centers a horizontal video frame bracketed by projected black, digital zero. To the right sits an attendant at a barren desk. The show continues in the gallery’s second building, on Santa Monica Boulevard. There, visitors pass from a brightly lit first gallery through an office to reach the back viewing rooms, typically reserved for sales, as a prelude to the furthest, final artworks: some line drawings in one room, a lone projection in another. Yet to dwell on the artist’s gestures toward the gallery’s workaday machinations is to miss Donnelly’s more ineffable gambit; her show’s most distant projection is also its most  forwardly sublime work: a kind of conveyor belt or waterfall of dusky clouds. One passes through the office, then passes back out. And if the unhinged skylight winks at the Orange Grove space’s perfectly architected lighting, it remains classically profound in its own right; a reveal of something not hidden so much as ignored; a Pantheon oculus, flapping loose.

Traversing the alley between the Orange Grove and Santa Monica spaces, one might pay closer attention to the access doors and their leaking light. If the doors’ interior disarray is part of the show, so too is their outer normalcy. If the show lasted, materially configured, for a duration of days—so does the time outside this limit. Donnelly’s show arranges then animates these contingencies; the gallery run sends out ripples: rumors that it was different at the opening (but in what ways, it’s been hard to say); tales of a run-down, 1980s Lincoln Town Car parked in the lot of the Santa Monica space for the show’s duration, a car owned or once owned by Donnelly. (I didn’t notice it.) Nor can I recall which of two projectors was propped up by a hardback book. I must have hurried too quickly through the office to spot, set on a table next to the show announcement cards, an unexplained, tech-type artifact. A friend suspected the scented hand soap in the gallery restroom (off of the office) may have been a piece. Without recourse to the abstraction of titles and materials lists, these conversations—a collective cross-check—could be the best we can do. At the same time, even though you’re right there, maybe you’ve always already missed it. This could very well be Donnelly’s plan.

One goes back outside. But first, to the right, in its own room, is a large vertically-oriented projected image of Richter-like smears; the illusion of fanning brush strokes breaks, when you move in close, into pixels. Severed from explanation and description, Donnelly’s works rely on an uncertainty that, even where programmed, could, with a word, cease as art (yes, thank you, we keep meaning to secure that tarp); in stubborn mutability, these works may not be works at all. To explain, to list, to state the artist’s interventions would be to unmake them. Trisha Donnelly at Matthew Marks resists abstraction into the shorthand of “a painting show,” “a sculpture show,” or “a show about”—a show irreducible beyond the syntax of its parts. When discrete works appear, often as short loops or stills, they are more “projection” than “video”; they cannot be abbreviated as “a depiction of” or “a piece about.” Such is the ineffability bound to the lack of words to describe, categorize, taxonomize, state and pack away. Such is the persistence of an ineffable show. Donnelly throws out a rejoinder to art designed as a meme’s vector.

In the corner by the Santa Monica space’s entrance is a pair of glossy black-and-white fiber prints mounted straight on the wall. The photograph nearest the door is roughly square, printed toward the top of a rectangular, 11 x 14 sheet of silver gelatin paper; it depicts a settlement, a street, a path cutting through cubic dwellings down the frame’s middle in a kind of widening symmetry—a vase-like gap between two faces. The image is rotated on the page; the sky lies on the left. The image is nearly black, like an overexposed print or paper negative. At its bottom edge the print bears two linear burn marks where light bled around the enlarging easel’s bar. The other print, on the adjacent wall, is more legible—most legible, perhaps—and perhaps for this reason is the only artwork of which a document has been made available to the press. This is the image of Trisha Donnelly at Matthew Marks: In the top half of a squarish frame, a cluster of ruined light brick and concrete buildings steps down a grassy silver hill. Bisecting their composition is a chimney or tower punctured by hatches. A stonewall foundation runs along their base, on the left disappearing into the hill, fading into rubble on the right. To either side of the standing buildings are the clattering angles of other collapsed walls, foundations, possibly columns. Near the chimney is the full black rectangle of a doorway or missing wall. Thick plants, like creeping succulents, overtake the foreground; the undulating mounds of grey groundcover climb the frame behind the buildings to meet a wedge of blown-out sky. Mimicking the line of chimney and hill is a twisted black blur, a darkroom artifact, that winds up the photograph’s right side. In syndication as a digital image, the photo is cropped from the print that appeared in situ: excluded are the paper’s margins (the analogue of projected black). Taken for a source of certainty or stability, light, by way of vision, arrives as the opposite: an impression without fixity, absence and presence, particle and wave, grey on grey. This print and its double are stuck directly to the wall, as flat as possible, almost projections.

Travis Diehl lives in Los Angeles. He is a recipient of the Creative Capital / Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant. He serves on the editorial board of X-TRA and edits the artist-run arts journal Prism of Reality.


  1. Only one image was made available to the press, but it is unlikely to be the only professionally produced document of Donnelly’s show at Matthew Marks. Others may yet surface in the catalogues-raisonné of the future. In the meantime, one can find the in comprehensive photo-documentation posted online by unofficial sources.
  2. Olivian Cha, “Critics’ Picks: Trisha Donnelly at Matthew Marks,”, October 20, 205, accessed February 7, 206,
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