Kristine Donnelly’s Paperwork at the Taft Museum

How might a contemporary artist respond to an art space that is rich in historical allusions such as the Taft Museum? Only the second “Emerging Artist” invited to exhibit her work, Kristine Donnelly found that an appealing question when she visited the museum’s inaugural Keystone Contemporary Series show last year for Emil Robinson’s exhibition, Axis Mundi. Compared to Robinson’s Contemporary Realist studio paintings however, Donnelly’s post-studio sculptures are more inconspicuous in their connection to the Taft’s priceless collection of old-world European masters—particularly given her choice of medium. Using the building blocks of interior design, Donnelly’s installation engages and underscores the museum’s Victorian architectural aesthetic—unexpectedly suggesting something intimately personal in the way the artist plays with basic elements of pattern, material, scale, and even title.

The Taft’s diminutive Keystone Gallery accommodates just two works by Donnelly: an eight-roll wall installation, Pose, and an undulating dress-like paper sculpture, Enclosure. The two works significantly occupy the space with their considerable size. Taking up most of the longest wall opposite the gallery entrance, Pose is 12.5 ft. wide and at least 6.5 ft. tall, attached at varying heights. Enclosure hangs roughly 8 ft. long and 2 ft. in diameter from the ceiling at the far end of the room, next to a shuttered window. Donnelly’s pieces evoke a kind of presence within the space by toying with the opposition of pattern and texture, heaviness and lightness. In doing so, she employs decoration as a method of assigning identity.

Pose is attached to the wall and spooled around each of the eighteen-inch rolls at varying lengths, allowing the viewer a glimpse through the doily-like hand-cut paper—the face of which Donnelly painted tan to match the wall. On the other side, the artist screen-printed warm yellow botanical patterns inspired by the current draperies in the Taft’s nearby Music Room. Donnelly selectively cut around her printed design for the viewer to look through, and the yellow is only visible where the paper curls back around itself. If viewed straight on, the paper appears to float six inches above the wall, simultaneously receding and reappearing in one’s view. Background and foreground melt together into one continuous wild pattern with brief hints of yellow showing through.

Upon viewing Pose, I could not help but be reminded of the short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.1 Published in the late nineteenth century, (when the historic Taft Museum was actually still a home to Anna & Charles Taft,) it was an early work of American feminist literature. The story can be read as one woman’s account of postpartum depression and the common nineteenth-century medical practice of confining women to the domestic sphere as a cure-all for any “nervous troubles.” The nameless female protagonist is forcibly isolated for a “rest cure” in a room with patterned yellow wallpaper, behind which the narrator imagines herself trapped. Like Gilman’s golden-hued wallpaper with the “sprawling and flamboyant pattern,” Donnelly’s Pose literally curls off the wall. At the end of the story, Gilman’s narrator frees herself (or descends into total madness—depending on your reading,) by peeling all of the paper off the wall.

Walking the line between interior decoration and fine art, Donnelly uses depth and pattern to play tricks on the eye of the viewer, just as Gilman’s wallpaper did to her narrator. Donnelly’s work invites the viewer to peer into the two-dimensional flat surface—its flatness enhanced by her use of the wall color. This confrontation between flatness and depth, color and absence are not only allusions to the interior décor but a provocation of the observer.

To my mind, the only proverbial figure trapped within the cut out patterns in Pose might be the viewer. One questions the boundaries of the work and (like most post-studio work) what it all means. While the answer most certainly exists, the artist allows us the open-ended question.

Donnelly’s choice of title might be the strongest argument overall for Pose’s invocation of the personal. By titling her work the most commonly depicted action on the portrait-covered walls throughout the museum (posing) it is a clear implication of person. Although there is no visible body to pose in Pose, the title, engagement with the viewer, and significant size suggest a presence.

Similarly, Donnelly’s more sculptural installation of the two works, Enclosure, also evokes the apparition of a physical presence within the Keystone Gallery. In a very different way, however, the translucent, lacy, “chandelier-inspired” work, suggests a fine fabric draped in tiers—much like that of a dress. Upon viewing this ensconced figure, I was reminded of yet another Victorian era female writer: Emily Dickinson. Infamous for wearing an all-white house-dress2 (although curiously, there are no known photographs of her wearing it,) and her self-imposed isolation, she also routinely wove tropes of the dressmaker’s trade into her writing. Referring to her Christian God as “The Weaver”and the quality of peoples’ character to varying fabrics,3 is just one example of the “dress culture” many Victorian women would have taken for granted.4

Likewise, Donnelly’s process for the work was similar to that of a dressmaker. She describes her labor-intensive process as three-part: the initial screen-printing, subsequent cutting, and final assembling. Working to create the “desired profile” for Enclosure, Donnelly played with the limitations of her materials. She made selective decisions about which screen-printed patterns to cut out, re-cut the vellum once hung if too heavy or not supple enough in places, and pulled back edges to reveal more opaque pieces of the lacy teal screen-print underneath. During assembly, Donnelly used thread, wire, & monofilament to pull, twist, and stitch the draped rolls of vellum.

Much like a dressmaker who creates a pattern, cuts it out, and pieces it together accordingly, there is similarly an element of chance and play in Donnelly’s work. The dressmaker is a fitting image, as the sculpture itself can be seen to resemble a woman’s lacy frock, “enclosing” an invisible figure within. A bodiless dress—not unlike those worn by women in many portraits in the Taft’s historic house—posed next to a shuttered window, “Enclosed” within a small space.

So who are these people—women, if one may be gender specific—evoked in Donnelly’s installation? I believe the patterned, cut, and assembled paper, overlays a person in absentia. “Mistakes” of chance created an opportunity for the artist to engender her work with an intimacy of inspection by using basic aesthetic elements in the recently redone (very Victorian) interior design of the Taft house. The impermanence of her materials are like the recently-redone interior design at the Taft: meant to be temporary.

Perhaps Donnelly was responding to the portrait of Ana Sinton Taft (who lived in the house from 1873 to her death in 1931) in the museum’s aforementioned Music Room, or maybe to a nameless Victorian female composite. One thing seems for certain: Donnelly toys with her materials to create an identity that is assigned by means of decoration. Playing with negative and positive space, heavy and light materials, texture and flatness, Donnelly uses the building blocks of architecture and interior design to delineate a grid describing a body—paradoxically the most personal element of all.

– Maria Seda-Reeder

Keystone Contemporary: Kristine Donnelly: Paperwork, at the Taft Museum of Art, 316 Pike Street Cincinnati, Ohio 45202 | (513) 241-0343. Hours: Wednesday-Sunday, 11 a.m-5 p.m. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays through Oct. 24

1A full online copy of the story can be read here
2An image of Dickinson’s dress & brief history
3An example of one such poem:
A shady friend-for Torrid days-
Is easier to find-
Than one of higher temperature
For Frigid-hour of Mind-
The Vane a little to the East-
Scares Muslin souls-away-
If Broadcloth Hearts are firmer-
Than those of Organdy-
Who is to blame? The Weaver?
Ah, the bewildering thread!
The Tapestries of Paradise
So notelessly-are made!
4See Christine Bayles Kortsch’s “Dress Culture in Late Victorian Women’s Fiction”(2009) for more information.



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