Imagine Henry Darger and Joseph Cornell getting together and concocting a story of the Vivian Girls doing battle inside a box. That is more or less what sisters Nicole and Caitlin Duennebier have created in the window of SPACE Gallery, that opened April 25.
Store windows act as physical and psychological barriers, separating you from what you ostensibly desire and admire. Dioramas, literally meaning "through that which is seen," are distancing devices too, allowing for only an indirect relationship of viewership, often through glass. Designed for frontal, exclusionary viewing, they relate environmental habitats or historical events, including battles, as authoritative narratives. Early-19th-century paper theaters include a stage set and cutout characters to be manipulated.
One does not need to know of these precedents and influences to thoroughly enjoy and grasp the Duennebier’s “Battle for the Sweetlands,” but it helps realizing how smartly they have combined aspects of these cultural expressions. One also does not need to know that the installation elaborates on an earlier narrative project by Caitlin Duennebier, which involved settlers in an invented land. The obscurity of the underlying story actually helps to stir viewers’ own imagination. Each window panel contains an enclosed diorama of multiple layers of scenery. The central and largest one is titled “Massacre near Gumdrop Mountain.”
Two groups of men and women, some riding what are probably meant to be horses but could equally well be mythical beings, are bitterly engaged in armed battle. Although all characters have bare upper torsos, the only unequivocal gender identification is caricatured hairstyles: if you have long hair you’re a woman; crewcut, you’re a man. The deadly combat takes place amongst rolling hills with red, dead trees encroaching from the sides like flames of destruction and tongues of blue and gray vegetation reaching up from below. On the horizon looms a pink heap of candies like the true, promised land worth fighting for. How’s that for sugarcoating war? Here’s the world we live in (and fight and die in) and there the world we pine for — sweet, sticky, seductive — as in all the wonderful goods in shop windows we are led to believe we crave like we crave sugar.
The smaller diorama on the left features gigantic, blood-gorged ticks underground. Above, an encampment of orange tents is enclosed by a night sky that features a constellation of a fighting man and woman on horseback. In the right diorama night is fantastically suggested by menacing, black vegetation and a silver backdrop. Listening to a woman speak, a group of people are gathered around a campfire (which is suggestively illuminated by a flickering light at night). There’s a great sense of forlornness about this gathering, so small in this dark universe, and of a saga of mythical proportions being relayed.
The installation is clearly the work of two people. Caitlin’s figures are linear, cartoonish, with pronounced noses à la Jim Nutt, and a bit sloppily executed, which gives them freshness and liveliness. Nicole’s scenery is pretty spectacular, very imaginative, and makes great use of just paper, ink, and paint.
Like any traditionally composed narrative, this one has a beginning, middle, and end. It suggests a narrative progression from the night before in which the clash is prefigured in the stars, to the battle itself, and a later night, when life gets turned into narrative, or in this case, story into meta-story. The Duennebier’s installation wonderfully attests to the persistence of narrativity in contemporary art, which requires the figure, in whatever form. “Battle for the Sweetlands” is an imaginative contemporary version of Bosch’s and Breughel’s follies of mankind, mixed with the narrative and formal repertoire of Darger and Cornell. It tells the sad and endless story of greed and of fighting for the wrong thing—the thing without nutritional value, spiritually, emotionally, and communally speaking—but with a refreshing sense of humor. Most importantly, the work is out there, on the street, in a format and venue accessible to all.
“Nicole and Caitlin Duennebier: Battle for the Sweetlands” through July 4 | window of SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St., Portland | 207.828.5600 | space538.org
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