"Face to Face" with Alyson Denny


“These are… beautiful,” I say with trepidation, inserting a half-question mark at the end of my sentence to see how my comment will land. I am in Alyson Denny’s studio near the East River, looking at some of her photographs pinned to the wall. Denny, a New York based photographer and video artist (and the first in my series of studio visits!), doesn’t seem to mind.

In today’s art world, beautiful is not necessarily a word of praise and is certainly not the modus operandi of many contemporary artists. Are Wolfgang Tillmans’s meticulous installations beautiful? I don’t think that’s the word I’d use to describe them. Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate? Not in a conventional sense. And for artists like Cindy Sherman and Jenny Saville, beauty is often the opposite of the point.

But Alyson Denny’s work is beautiful, and she “can’t see anything wrong with beauty,” even given its contemporary reputation. Beautiful, after all, is not pretty, which shimmers on the surface of things, but is depth, meaning, contradiction, and change. The Beautiful can alter the way you see the world. After all, wasn’t it another artist who said, “beauty is the beginning of terror”? (Or, as Denny put it, “I like beauty with a little ‘oomph’ in it.”)

Beauty with a little "oomph." Alyson Denny,  Cabinet Glass Sessions #14,  pigmented inkjet print.

Beauty with a little "oomph." Alyson Denny, Cabinet Glass Sessions #14, pigmented inkjet print.

Throughout my visit I got the distinct impression that Denny was “my type of artist,” innovative as it would serve her art but not for innovation’s own sake, accomplished, yet gentle and kind with me, a novice interviewer, and above all, excited to share her work, generous with her time. Her patience, always with energy behind it, was the setting in which we explored her work, together.  

Much of her work’s success comes from her keen eye for light, which she began to hone early on while working in the theater as a teenager. She gravitated toward the subtlety of lighting design and apprenticed as a technician at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts while a student at Harvard, where she studied film. Schooled in cinéma vérité, Denny began making documentaries out of college (to not insignificant acclaim), but never lost sight of the creative potential and emotional effect of color and light, soon leaving documentary filmmaking behind to become what she is today. (That is, a photographer, light based performance artist, and moving image abstractionist.)

Her education in shooting for documentary, however, did leave its mark. The “fly on the wall” approach she was taught as a student had her observe anything and everything as it unfolded in front of the camera. She would then bring the footage back to the studio to “massage” (the verb Denny often uses to evoke her process) her material into the message she ultimately wanted to communicate. This back and forth between “field” and studio is the crux of Denny’s practice, and understanding this tendency to oscillate between the planned and the freewheeling is essential to mining her later works.

Take the Cabinet Glass Sessions, a series of evocative abstract photographs that for many (including this blogger) resemble the exuberant brushiness of painting– from the works of J.M.W. Turner to the Abstract Expressionists. (Not so off the mark, as Denny does admit that she was raised looking at their monumental paintings, as her father was an art historian). But what is utterly different about these works, which depart from the Surrealist origins of Abstract Expressionism, is the constricted space in which they are free to thrive. While the Abstract Expressionists (I’m thinking particularly of Robert Motherwell and (perhaps) Jackson Pollock) depended on the chance results of artist confronting material, these photographs rely, yes, on what is produced in the moment, but under conditions already predetermined by the artist. Denny is meticulous in finding the right set of rules to govern what images can be produced. She explains: “In my own work I am interested in setting up systems and interacting with them. It’s a long process of setting up the system and then the interacting is very improvised.” For the Sessions, the “system” is one of layering various semi-transparent materials over bold colors. Each layer (antique glass, then a scattering of iridescent beads atop a smearing of hair gel, all over colored gel filters) plays with light in a different way, scattering it to produce a vast array of pictures. In some ways, it’s like playing around with a kaleidoscope, except that the most intriguing and most beautiful prismatic images have been pre-selected for you.

Alyson Denny,  Cabinet Glass Sessions #11,  pigmented inkjet print.

Alyson Denny, Cabinet Glass Sessions #11, pigmented inkjet print.

But the process does not end when they are tacked to the wall. When I asked how she felt about free association, she replied that indeed “everyone is welcome to project whatever they want,” adding, “this is important to me.” As an artist, her role is one of creator, but also one akin to an explorer or an archeologist, eager to bring to others what she’s discovered. “I see something, which is the reason I’m sharing it,” but that’s only one interpretation. “I feel like I am allowed to love them because I am finding them,” she says, exclaiming, “It’s like ‘look what I found!’”  

And so often this is how I feel about the women artists I encounter as I do my writing and research. Too many are wildly, undeservedly underrepresented in the press and media, and sometimes, when meeting women like Denny who are kind enough to let me go through their work up close, I feel like shouting from the rooftops, “Look! Look what I found!”

See more of Alyson's work at http://www.alysondenny.com/

My personal favorite- -somehow it reminded me of John Singer Sargent's  El Jaleo . Alyson Denny,  Cabinet Glass Sessions #19,  pigmented inkjet print.

My personal favorite- -somehow it reminded me of John Singer Sargent's El Jaleo. Alyson Denny, Cabinet Glass Sessions #19, pigmented inkjet print.