Jeanne Dunning looks at what’s left behind

The works in this exhibition radiate death. Roadkill is scattered around on the floor, from the upper level, to the stairs leading down to the exhibition space, to the main gallery. A massive mandala takes up most of that floor, made up of ash sourced from wood effigies the artist made of herself and then burned; that act is captured on a lengthy video (aptly titled I burn myself in effigy), also on view. A lush photo shows a chicken lying dead in a verdant, grassy scene.

Though all of the works on view were executed in 2022, artist and Northwestern University professor Jeanne Dunning has been ruminating on the projects and their themes for a long time. “What I’ve learned from being an artist, and part of what I think artists actually do in their work a lot of the time, is they see something in a way that may be a little different than how people usually see it,” she says. “I feel like part of what I try to do in making the work is figure out how to show what I see, because I know it’s not what everybody sees all the time. And that’s why it’s interesting.”

In the roadkill pieces, which are thoroughly flattened and dried, then polyurethaned and painted gray, Dunning was drawn to how abstracted these once three-dimensional, living, breathing animals had become. With some, it’s possible to make out what they used to be, by the shape of a wing or a fragile-looking leg poking out, but others are just an illegible shape. It is clear they are utterly devoid of life.

The grayness and the flatness of the roadkill are echoed in What’s left behind, a black-and-white video that serves as a meditation on the city’s neglected built environments. The video consists of a series of repetitive vignettes. Each starts with a seemingly static scene: an empty lot, a city park, the loading dock of a building. There don’t seem to be any people in the shot. But after a few minutes a heap of fabric in the frame stirs, and a person emerges from beneath the blanket and walks out of view. The person shows no recognition of their surroundings. It is unclear if they are meant to be alive or resurrected. After they leave the frame, the ambient sound—which at times can jar the viewer, with the whoosh of traffic or the cryptic cawing of a bird—cuts out.

The other video here, I burn myself in effigy, which is shot in full color, is also a study in repetition. In each month of 2021, Dunning gathered brush from invasive species and crafted the bundle into a humanlike effigy, like a smaller-scale wicker man. The effigy was then burned in a bonfire, a typical way to get rid of invasive saplings or brush that won’t easily decompose. (The artist has long been a part of such ecological restoration work.)

On the surface, this ritualistic practice was a way for the artist to think about her own death—to watch it, in a way. “Death is one of the great existential questions of being human,” she says. “We all know that not only do we see people and other things die, but we know, rationally, eventually we’re going to die. But we can’t really totally understand it, ever, I don’t think, while we’re still alive.” In that sense, the effigy burning gave Dunning an opportunity to confront the inevitable—maybe not to understand it, but at least to process it in some way.

On another level, the work is also about the opportunity for renewal. Each month there’s a new effigy, and with it, a chance to excise a part of oneself, to start over. “It’s a way of letting a person imagine remaking themselves, but also creating a situation where it suggests that we can understand our lives as always being in process,” Dunning says.

Dunning’s work is a perfect fit for Watershed Art & Ecology, a newish space, which is run by artists Claire Pentecost and Brian Holmes. (Their first exhibition was in 2019; the pandemic then put a pause on other programming.) Watershed aims to present programming that addresses “our relations with each other and with the natural environment.” Housed in a former men’s athletic association, the gallery space has been beautifully transformed from a gymnasium to a warm exhibition area with wooden floors and walls. 

Entering the building from the bustling scene on Racine Avenue feels a bit like entering a secret sanctuary. With the ash mandala taking up the breadth of the floor, the exhibition itself seems to encourage slowing down and, if not meditating, then at least ruminating—on the unceasing cycles of life and death, on the physical and intangible things we leave behind, and on how every ending is an opportunity for a new beginning.

“JEANNE DUNNING” Through 10/29: Sat 2-7 PM and by appointment (text 773- 383-9771 or email [email protected]), Watershed Art & Ecology, 1821 S. Racine, watershed-art.org

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