What's her line?

Published Tuesday, June 21 2022 at 9:32 pm
What's her line?
Detail of Mary Dondero, Navigating by Stars, 2021. Pastel and charcoal on paper.

A disclosure: the artwork above is in Mary Dondero’s new solo show, and it was also in an exhibit I curated last fall. Obviously, I like it.

And I like many of Dondero’s works, having encountered them in oh-so-many contexts since first writing them up in 2016. My appreciation, like Dondero’s aesthetic, is consistent.

It’s true that The Sound of Stars, which opened this past Sunday at the Providence Art Club, doesn’t cover much new ground. Not that ‘ground,’ if it means getting in the dirt, is really Dondero’s visual element anyway. Her imagery owes much more to sky and sea.

They often seem to float, her paintings. They can be full of clouds or chunks of ice. A void, counterbalanced by the physicality of media, is what’s important. Dondero doesn’t offer big surprises. But what she does, she does well.

Dondero’s output is often dazzling in its volume. The fact that she tends to riff on a few themes reliably suggests an iterative process, not a rudderless one. (I mean, this is my 21st day of writing consecutively, so I’m starting to understand the impulse.) Dondero’s relentlessness is apparent in her mark making. I don’t think you could accuse these drawings of too little energy.

“Drawings,” not only because this show’s biggest papers feature pastels, but because even Dondero’s paintings, like Twombly’s, make line their primary investigation. A line is destined to be straight, curved, or angular, right? Then a mark breaks the continuity. Making a mark stops a line from becoming infinite. This is what a ‘line worker’ like Twombly, or Dondero, does. And they do it enthusiastically. Within this genre, how a mark hits the ground or paper is just as important as where.

Install view of The Sound of Stars.

That’s not to say all these works have frenzied surfaces. Horae Summer offers the best of both worlds, with a very slender gray line positioned inside a flurry of white blocks. It enunciates a meditation, this contrast. The box outlines a space to breathe comfortably again.

Speaking of boxes, there are 16 white shadowboxes here, each with an oil-on-panel that levitates inside the recessed frame. The paint is applied impasto, piled into literal mounds of color. Maybe the linework isn’t as obvious here. Pay attention and you’ll find a conscientiousness about composition that only a familiarity with line can bring.

Despite all this looseness, the framing and presentation of Dondero’s work tends toward austerity. It is all very immaculate. Even if that’s not to your taste, the imagery yields its own roughness and texture. In person, these works invite you readily. The artist’s excitement comes through.

What also comes through is a judicious amount of sparkle from (presumably) metallic pastels. Consider it another layer to Dondero’s zeal, something I’m really only noticing now. You can write about an artist for years and still be totally clueless to some things. I never considered how Dondero’s choice and use of materials relays a certain youthfulness.

She has jubilant interest in the process at hand: The glitter and the shiny pigments. The use of charcoal sticks and pastels (i.e. crayons). All the mess those tools imply. The shadowboxed panels resemble a display of fancy cakes. They’re also embedded with glass beads. These blips of hard color could’ve been plucked off the floor of a teenager’s bedroom.

True, a title like Vanishing Glacier hints at ecological ruin more than it does a good time. Whatever the pieces are really speaking to, they’re obviously urgent. In the same way Twombly’s paintings describe historical moments or wars, Dondero’s describe moments spent staring at the sea or stars.

And what’s on the horizon? Apocalypses? Infernos? A title from one of Dondero’s paintings tells us a possible remedy: Sometimes We Just Need to Go to the Beach.

Dondero, Beaches 13. Oil and glass beads on panel.

FYI: Dondero’s The Sound of Stars is on view through July 15 at the Providence Art Club, in the Dodge House Gallery, 11 Thomas Street. The gallery is open 12-4pm everyday except Saturday. Free admission.

[30 days of June: No. 21/30]