By Sandra Schulman
Locking down in an art studio is old hat for artists, so the quarantine imposed by COVID-19 was just more fuel for the creative fire.
For artist Marc Dennis, who lives and works in Brooklyn, it was a time to look back to look at the now. In his hyper-realist style, he found inspiration not only in the images of the Old Masters such as Caravaggio and Ingres also in the intrusions and process of making art in the studio.
A new show at Gavlak Gallery in Palm Beach’s Royal Poinciana Plaza location presents these works in Love in a Time of Corona that explores questions of artistic ownership, pictorial representations of images, and how lockdown has reduced much of the world to consuming such images through screens.
The biggest hat trick here is the artist’s ability to master trompe l’oeil in a way that reveals the artist’s technique, reproduction mastery, inner studio workings and quirks of how everyday life can intrude.
Viewers feel they are looking at perhaps a photograph of the artist’s studio as it shows a classical painting reproduction in progress with taped images and references on the wall beside it. But look again: It is all a painting, which forces the eye and the mind to question the comparisons it has been making about what is being reproduced where and by whom.
“The five paintings in the exhibition were selected by the gallery because they worked best together in creating the most effective combinations,” Dennis says by email. “The paintings in the exhibition do indeed show a part of my process. I tape and pushpin sketches, photos and preparatory drawings on my wall directly in front of me positioned around the canvas when creating paintings and use the walls of my studio as a means to clean my brushes, test colors and smooth my brush tips while painting.”
In isolation of quarantine, Dennis chose to “see” Old Master works that he could not see in person through reproductions. But real life is always there, so a collection of multi-colored sticky notes shows every text message sent to him over his long period of isolation, pulling the immediate outside world right into his studio walls going from digital to painted.
He also throws in various animals – cats, dogs and even penguins – that seem to be studio visitors, not portrait subjects.
“The idea for including penguins was inspired by the joint project between The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., and the Kansas City Zoo in early March, 2020,” Dennis wrote. “Both institutions were closed to the public because of the pandemic, but they organized a visit of Humboldt penguins to the museum for a ‘morning of fine art and culture.’
“The photos of the penguins looking at art in the museum made me think about how we view images on digital platforms, especially during the pandemic where we are mostly looking at screens, and how it affected our overall search for meaning. It got me thinking about how the pandemic has not only affected our perception of images in terms of what is real and what is not, but also how we understand narratives and find meanings in new places.
“For me it was the perfect blend of public and personal mythologies. And it led me to creating a fresh series of paintings that related to the idea of the traditional tromp l’oeil motif or how I am able to trick the eye and the motivation to push the idea of the meta-narrative where I would paint a story about a story, encompassing both personal and public personas,” he wrote.
The lockdown experience of his children made their way into the work too.
“Cats were especially popular during this period,” Dennis continues. “My kid’s teachers allowed their cats to walk across their keyboards during Zoom classrooms, often disrupting reality for a moment in time where it seemed normal, and life went on. So, cats naturally made their appearance in my paintings – disrupting the picture plane and causing a rather new set of emotions and sensations to our reactions to viewing.
“Dogs catching frisbees came to me when I felt like pushing the envelope of sensationalism and disruption. I was intrigued with the juxtapositions of forms, shapes, colors and meaning.”
Does the artist think this period of lockdown will affect his future work once it is over?
He replies: “I try my best at living life day to day; therefore if I may, I can only say that the future is what it is and it’s something I certainly can only hope is there when I get there. How I am affected once there remains a mystery. And it’s the mystery — and beauty of life that keeps me going.”
Love in the Time of Corona will be on view through June 5 at Gavlak Palm Beach, Royal Poinciana Way, Suite M334 in Palm Beach. For more information, call 561-833-0583 or visit gavlakgallery.com.