The Playful Resistance of Jo Dennis' Sculptural Paintings

Review / November 2022
The Playful Resistance of Jo Dennis' Sculptural Paintings
By Millie Walton
All of the works in Jo Dennis’ solo exhibition Absent Without Leave at Sid Motion Gallery are painted on army surplus tents: a surface designed to repel liquid; to contain bodies; to house and protect. Though from a distance the tents appear (almost) in the guise of traditional canvases, stretched tightly over a wooden frame and covered with exuberant splashes of paint, their raw, or rather collapsed materiality reveals itself through seams, holes, flaps, creases, pockets, toggle buttons, and thin, dangling threads of rope. Each piece gives the sense of being simultaneously made and undone.

This sensation is most acute when encountering Home Front (2022), a large-scale installation work for which an entire tent is draped loosely over a wooden, scaffold-like structure. The structure, however, is only visible from the back: one has a sense of having peered behind the curtain, catching a glimpse behind the scenes. From the front, the tent appears to be holding itself up in a poor performance of a house. The material is pinched in places, folded over and ripped, while the side with a single mesh window hangs higher than its opposite, before sagging onto the floor. If it were simply an old, khaki army tent hung up in the same disheveled manner, this would be a more melancholy scene. It might evoke ideas around disuse and abandonment, or failed expectations—the sad ghost of patriarchy. But Dennis is not interested in engineering pathos, nor, I suspect, in bemoaning brutal patriarchal systems, even if she did grow up in a military family. Painted in rich tones of red, orange, yellow, pink and blue, the tent-as-house becomes a loveable, rather hapless character in a game of make believe.

There is a similar sense of warmth and humour in the wall-based works, though here ideas of renewal, or transformation, are approached from a different perspective. Broadly speaking, Dennis paints in an abstract manner—her works evoke a mood, or perhaps a memory, rather than presenting a static representation a figure, object, or scene. However, many of these latest works hint at the idea of a landscape proper, albeit one that’s unstable, wavering, either partially submerged in pools of colour or buried beneath chaotic, explosive gestures. Funny Weather 02 offers the clearest impression. Painted across two canvases that have been joined together to form a large format horizontal surface, Dennis invites the viewer to allow the painting to unfold. The image, if it ever existed, comes slowly, defined most consistently by what we might imagine to be its edges. On the right panel, a series of wobbly, asymmetrical lines recall the half-sunken wooden stilts often found at sea—the remains of an old pier, a tether for a boat. Behind them, another line traces the horizon, extending a little way over the gap at the centre, between the canvases, before once again giving way to colourful, amorphous brush marks.

The same kinds of lines appear in Ladies Ponds, but at a larger, more confrontational scale. In this work, the slippage between chaos and control, precariousness and permanence translates into the very substance of the painting. The deep mauve of the lines leaks out into the watery surroundings, leaving purply stains on the surface; there are patches of crusty orange paint and translucent drip marks where the tent canvas seems to have finally done its job in expelling the pigment.

The title of the show comes from a historic military term used to refer to a soldier who had left their post without being given permission—a chargeable offence for which the individual could be shot. But its connotations have shifted as our world has evolved. Now, the idea of ‘going AWOL’, of dropping off the grid without explanation, is filled with potential or the promise of freedom. To suggest that this is the kind of experience that Dennis’ paintings can provide might be overly dramatic, but they certainly reach beyond their own making, offering a glimpse of something volatile, beautiful and strange.  

Image Credits:
Image 1: Installation View; Absent Without Leave (2022). Courtesy of Sid Motion Gallery
Image 2: Home Front (2022); Courtesy of Sid Motion Gallery.
Image 3: Funny Weather 02 (2022); Courtesy of Sid Motion Gallery.
Image 4: Ladies Ponds (2022); Courtesy of Sid Motion Gallery.