Violet Dennison’s sculptures resemble cubical dwellers’ suppressed internal lives. At Berlin’s Open Forum gallery, the Connecticut-born artist perches cement geometric forms on discarded office chairs’ wheeled support structure. These concrete squares and cylinders have bursts of whimsy stuck on their top or interrupting their centre. Although cheerful and tactile, these little moments of office-friendly fun, including plastic plants and rainbow plastic dusters, highlight the hardness and colourlessness of the cement. Dennison, who has contributed to group shows at Manhattan’s David Zwirner gallery and Derek Eller gallery, makes creativity her primary intellectual activity. Here, she explains her motives and methods.
AFH: Have you ever worked in an office? What is your cubical-dwelling experience?
VD: I never wanted to work in an office and I never have. I’ve worked at restaurants and shoes stores and galleries.
AFH: How do you feel the domestic setting of Open Forum relates to your works’ appearance and associations?
VD: This space in particular gave the work a much warmer feel. Normally, I hear my sculptures being called aliens but at Open Forum people were giving my sculptures little pet names. It was sweet and maybe an attempt to make the works familiar and human.
AFH: Do you consider your work as satire?
VD: At times my sculptures are mocking or teasing, but I think they do a lot of other things too.
AFH: Isn’t all good satire?
VD: Right. The best comedy is the comedy that digs at the truth. It seeks some higher purpose. I don’t want to call my work satire because satire is pointed. I want art to be more open ended than that.
AFH: Tell me your interpretation of your own work?
VD: One day, my friend Scott Keightley came into my studio and put a blue flash-light on my blue sculpture. He turned it on and said, “why can’t it look like this?” Right after that I went out into the hall and started unscrewing all these chair bases. These works were a culmination of everything I was thinking about at the time. I had just seen the movie Aliens, I had been working all the time doing these erratically scheduled dinner shifts. I had been making all these gigantic sculptures that were taking a lot out of me. It was like a plea to the world to give me a break. Some of those first works were called never ending tomorrow and vacation chair. They are about cognitive labor, they are about physical labor, they are about feeling trapped, they are about yearning. They are about time. This spoke to a much larger issue, which is the worker’s condition. That topic is endless.
AFH: Can you name other artists whose work you find funny?
VD: Most of the art that makes me laugh isn’t funny. There is something else happening. Pierre Huyghe can be a mischievous…Cosima von Bonin can be odd…Merlin Carpenter can be self-deprecating.
AFH: Are you talking about laughing at, versus with, some art? Do you see a danger in taking art or the art scene too seriously?
VD: What I mean is laughter is a complicated thing. Sometimes we are laughing to keep ourselves from crying. Sometimes I see art that is just so radically odd it makes me laugh. Visual language is at its best when it is at its most schizophrenic. But, that isn’t something you can do without sweating it out in the studio. In that sense, you have to be serious and you have to commit to make great art; but you don’t have to take yourself too seriously to do that.
AFH: How does humor relate to your concept of what art can, maybe should, do?
VD: I like art that pushes the boundaries, maybe art that is a bit wacky, and I want it to be honest too. Humor can run through all of these qualities.
AFH: Is being entertaining a valid goal for artists?
VD: Sure. At its simplest that is the act of grabbing someone’s attention. It seems to me that type of entertainment has always been a goal of contemporary art, starting with Duchamp. A lot of these artists were just looking for a reaction. To me, a historical piece like Rauschenberg’s “erased dekooning drawing,” is a little act of mischief. You know he got a kick out of it, and so did all his friends.
AFH: Where do you acquire your materials? What is the story to the particular components in your pieces?
VD: My studio is in an old office. When I first moved in it was stacked to the ceiling with furniture. That is where the chairs came from originally. The rest of it comes from the hardware store or the street. Most often there is a cannibalism that happens in the studio, where I’m reusing materials from old sculptures.
AFH: What incredible luck! What are your associations with cement? What drew you to that material?
VD: Cement is cheap and it’s accessible. Maybe I initially liked the challenge of lugging hundred pound bags to my studio, but I have grown to love how versatile it is. In some ways, cement is like a non-material because the whole city is made out of it.
AFH: It seems very heavy. Tell me about the physical concerns when stacking that heavy material on plastic wheels?
VD: There has been a lot of trial and error. That’s the fun part of being a sculptor it’s like a puzzle where all your ideas and aesthetics have to meet function. It’s great. I love pushing the materials to their limits. It’s all very physical. Sometimes it’s like a dance and other times the rebar is whacking me in the face.