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Little Fragments // Big Picture: A dialogue with Artist Alyssa Dennis

“Preserve man in his perseverance, for it is through this that he becomes immense…”                   -Brice Parain


The fecund work of Alyssa Dennis demands more than just a casual gallery glimpse. Her paintings span the breadth of walls, her sculptures drown space – they are jarringly disfigured, but austere; monumental, but with an elegant simplicity – a sort of  lightness of living. Each piece could act on their own, but they are threaded by the reappearance of curious objects: miniature cereal boxes, teeny modern chairs, little cones of folded paper.

When studying Alyssa’s latest work (during her MFA Exhibition at Tulane University), I fell into a game of guessing.

These were finely crafted works: unrestrained, entertaining, nauseating, fragmented, concrete. They were as if they held something beyond: something that a sane man’s logic could never grasp. Alyssa’s work transports a viewers experience from the personal, earthly reality into the a landscape of the artist’s dream.

More particularly, the work belongs to a poetically minded sort of cinema, begging viewers to question unquestionable safeties: reasons for living, the desire for reason itself, .. Questions that plague most every Werner Herzog film.
Herzog says of his cinematic endeavors – from inciting rebellion in a world of dwarfs to finding God’s origin in cave paintings –  that they reveal an ‘Ecstatic Truth;’ a truth less in the form of an ultimate truth, more: a reason to probe deeper. Such truth is the truth that I find in the work of Alyssa Dennis, and, I believe, such truth compelled me to create a dialogue with her.


It must be noted that this dialogue is imagined (and if you are to imagine it as I imagine it, it’s imagined to take place in the Tulane Newcomb gallery, as Alyssa and I tour her thesis exhibition.)

In the gallery’s first room, the largest of three rooms, I ask the Artist: Are you an artist?

– I am a creator.

What do you create?

–Worlds of living.

These worlds could probably be defined as worlds of ‘painting’ or ‘sculpture.’ …No?

–Probably. But I find that those words irrelevant to my work. I know the work through an unspoken language.

Now we enter the galleries second room, a brightly lit room with one large sculpture.

Do you see this plexiglass castle as a world on its own, or a confluence of worlds?—Each box of plexiglass is stacked.  Boxes seem to be trying to form a structure, a castle-like structure. The structure is incomplete because we can see through it; we can see that the castle’s insides are populated with tools from our world’s ever daychairs, cereal boxes, pitchers – miniature,  silly objects. Unlike most castles, this castle has no weapons for defense. Any enemy could easily invade this structure and then could easily climb the line of yarn connecting the castle to that island-like creation that’s mounted to that wall. Pointed to a small, plexiglass box, fastened to a gallery wall. That island seems like a dream. Or maybe it proves that the entire structure is dreamed?

–I don’t know. That piece is faulty. The plexi-glass has jagged edges and you can see glue holding the seams. The glue is very important


–I can’t say. Maybe to remind you it was created by me – it doesn’t have the perfection that nature does.

Did you intend on keeping it imperfect? – Are you avoiding formal beauty? – You’re a well trained artist, capable of constructing something that would seem flawless to untrained eyes. Why don’t you?

–I think there is beauty – in the faults and imperfections. Everything I have done I intended to do. Everything I’ve done is captivating to me, as captivating as any formal piece that I’ve seen.

Why is it captivating?

–Because it’s beautiful. I think formal beauty is one form of beauty: beauty that has history. But beauty is everywhere.

Lets turn to your paintings now, particularly the one that takes up the entire wall when we walk in the gallery – a plane of sea-foam green, scattered with figures of children, of old people,….  Like your other pieces, this painting seems to be searching for form.

–I don’t know about this painting. I don’t know much about most of my paintings. I like when paintings search for their own meaning. I like when they keep searching after I finish painting them.

Do you have any pieces with concrete, whole messages?

–The kit house projection piece.

We enter a dark room in the gallery. The only light projects from a sculpture, lighting a wall with a charcoal-drawn image of a cliff.

–The model house sculpture is supposed to project the cliff image. The cliff was taken from that painting hung behind Barrack Obama during his inauguration. The house is similar to one I lived in years ago. I chose it even though it’s boring, regular. I feel nostalgic for these kinds of houses–farm houses.

The house doesn’t seem boring to me; it has an old, 8×10 retractable camera lens fastened to the front door. What’s the message of this piece?

–Justice …mostly for nature.

In the tree-loving, environmentalist way?

–To an extent. But I think there’s also a bigger picture to ‘justice’ and a bigger picture to ‘nature.’  I have a hard time articulating this idea in words, but the message is in the piece.

Is your understanding of ‘nature’ beyond plants and animals?

–Beyond the human species. To me, nature is made up of satisfied organisms.

Is it something greater than language?

–No. Nature cannot exist as anything greater. It can be something entirely different or something identical.  It can have a form or no form at all. ‘Greater’ would not be nature.

…Returning to the first room, the large room…

Tell me about your paper cones? I see them scattered throughout your show.

–They’re crowns.

For you to wear?

–No. For me to scatter around.

Do you feel that scattering and fragmenting is a primal necessity inside the act of your creative process?

–I don’t know. I don’t really know what your question means. I guess I can say that my creative process is doing as I do until everything is satisfied.

What does that mean?

–I want all my demands to be satisfied.

What demands?

–Demands for joy, but also for pain. Demands for fear and for suffering. Creating is definitely a process of suffering – suffering, like going through Labor.

Are you always in this suffering state? Are you ever satisfied? How do you know when you’re finished creating a piece?–when the child has emerged and can go about its own life?

–A piece is usually done when I become too sleepy or too hungry to go on working. After creating something, I often eat then take a nap.

Just a nap?

–I only work in mornings. I finish working early in the day, then I nap for a bit. I like to fill my days with other things …things that are ‘not creative,’ so to speak.

Do you dream a lot? Is this why you work in mornings?—to steal ideas from dreams?

–Yes. Exactly. I also think my work educates my dreams. I mean, I really see my work’s dream as part of a dream that connects everything: my paintings, my life, my naps. And I feel that this dream must remain unsaid, it cannot be articulated in anyway. But it can be hinted to. I am reminded of it in each piece I make, and it echoes from other artist’s work—I’m sure it flips in time and dives into long-erased drawings by cave men when they were searching to articulate their own dreams. …So I guess that when I create, what I do is take the dream and play.


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