Alyssa Danna in her studio. Photo by David S. Rubin

Newcomer Alyssa Danna entered the San Antonio art scene this month with a bang, having been included in group exhibitions at Terminal 136, UTSA’s satellite space in the Blue Star complex, the R Gallery in King William, and Clamp Light Studios in Beacon Hill.   A recent graduate of the MFA program at the University of Texas, San Antonio, Danna is exhibiting sculptures and installations that bring new life to recycled objects and materials, while calling attention to the endangered environment.   Her interest in ecological issues, in fact, links her to a growing number of artists around the world who share these concerns, including San Antonio artists Sabra Booth, Margaret Craig, Jayne Lawrence, and Leigh Anne Lester.  A native Texan, Danna studied at the Western Art Academy in Kerrville and received a BFA from Lamar University in Beaumont before entering the program at UTSA.

For her BFA exhibition at Lamar University, Danna presented an impressive body of handmade sculptures, under the heading “Delicacies en Danger,” in which she took a whimsical approach to creating works about various endangered plants and animals.  In Sneak a Treat (2012), a praying mantis is shown imprisoned like a museum specimen inside a glass jar, along with orchids that also appear on its outer surface like ornamentation that we might find on decorative household objects.  In Deep Sea Martini, two endangered fish, a Cardinal Angelfish and a Mandarin Dragonette, are shown swimming in the waters of an oversized martini glass with a lemon attached to the rim.  At its base, a lobster and a coral plant, themselves also endangered, confront each other head on.   

While one might initially want to classify these objects as examples of kitsch, Danna succeeds brilliantly in these works at elevating the objects to high art for two significant reasons.  First, her aesthetic sensibility is downright elegant.  As demonstrated in the rhythmic movements and balancing of her forms, she has the ability to take mundane inanimate items and transform them into objects that are visually poetic and beautiful.  The second reason has to do with her process and the quality of her craftsmanship.  While working with glass paint, a medium that is ordinarily applied to glass surfaces for simulating stained glass, Danna discovered that the material forms a kind of malleable plastic when peeled off the glass.  So she began experimenting with it by manipulating the material over wire armatures, thereby developing the innovative process used to make her tiny life forms, including the orchids, mantis, fish, lemon, lobster, and coral.

"Safety Net," 2013, glass paint, wire, glass. Photo Courtesy of Alyssa Danna.
“Safety Net,” 2013, glass paint, wire, glass. Photo Courtesy of Alyssa Danna.

Excited by the potential of a newly discovered medium, Danna next set out to explore glass paint’s properties, which resulted in a process oriented series about drips and growth.  “Safety Net” (2013), from the artist’s investigations of dripping, is a dynamic little wall-mounted sculpture about finding strength within vulnerability.   Visually incongruous, a glass sheet is suspended from and held into place by wire armatures coated with the glass paint.   Although the glass sheet is physically supported, it looks as if it could drop and break at any moment, which can leave a viewer thinking about such things as fragility or the laws of gravity, while feeling sensations of anticipation.

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Like San Antonio artist Kristy Perez, Danna often creates sculptural assemblages by recycling discarded old objects, although she is more active than Perez in searching for resource materials at thrift stores and garage sales.   For a 2013 series about growth, decay, and regeneration, Danna mixed Styrofoam beads into the glass paint to simulate molten organic matter, and applied it to look like parasites crawling over objects that she acquired in a broken state.  In Accidents in Handling, a shattered cup and saucer set is embellished with the thick globular matter, which the artist decorated using the cup and saucer’s dot motif.   In Fester, the material resembles a crusty slime that dangles from the top of a table that was missing a leg, and appears to have dropped some residue on the floor.   Although the initial impact of these works may seem disturbing due to their evocation of ideas about death and destruction, Danna also invites us to consider the molten matter as particles that are cleansing, constructive, and healing in the way that good bacteria can mend a wound or cure an illness.

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For her MFA thesis exhibition, How Handsomely You Dwell, Danna exhibited a number of assemblages made by repurposing decorative objects that were no longer of use to their former owners, while playing with the idea that “to dwell” can refer to living in a habitat as well as to being obsessive about something.  Such dual meaning is evident in works like Part Sun (2015), where objects that were once used to spruce up people’s homes and gardens have been given complete makeovers, with obsessive attention to detail.  The starting point for this sculpture was the artist’s acquisition of two concrete shelves, one bleached from having been in the sun, and the other deteriorated from mildew, having been kept in the shade.   With the work presented as a diptych, the sun bleached shelf on the left is transformed into a support for a vibrant artificial still life made up of plastic fruit, flowers, and foliage.  To reinforce its connotations as something healthy and prosperous, Danna inlayed plastic jewelry into the shelf’s decorative molding.  In contrast, the shelf on the right is a morose study in decay and corrosion, with real wasp nests attached to its underside. Similar organic matter, including a cat skull, dead beetles, crab claws, seed pods, and honeycomb, also found their way into Eden (2015), a sculpture in which a ceramic pedestal resting on a linen cloth appears to be mutating before our eyes, an effect that is accentuated by the artist’s gestural application of yellow chalk pastel.

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The process of mutation is also the dominant aspect of Danna’s wall sculpture Don’t Mind Me (2014), which was included in the recent exhibition at Terminal 136.  In this work, which is wall mounted like an gargantuan floral wreath, tiny little objects such as angel figurines and silk flowers are camouflaged and completely overpowered by molten matter made up of large masses of foam and glass paint with beads, while actual bubbles are emitted into the viewer’s space with the assistance of an aerator.  A similar tactic was used in Airborne (2014), Danna’s site-specific installation at Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum, where the organic substance is shown broken apart and attached like parasites to one of the gallery columns.  To create a sense that the material is actively living and breathing, Danna embedded it with motion detectors and an air compressor, such that it makes a hissing sound while emitting visible puffs of cold air towards a viewer who approaches it within a distance of three feet.

Since 2014, Danna has created a number of site-specific installations that resemble habitats or dwellings.  For Shop Window Chandelier (2014), a collaboration with Justin Korver, Danna and Korver spent the first hour of their opening at High Wire Arts in performance, filling the space behind the venue’s storefront window with an over-the-top installation of party decorations, including flag banners, paper flowers, Mardi Gras beads, and feather boas.   As night came on and the space was illuminated by indoor lighting, the window tableau took on the appearance of an aquarium gone wild.  While looking very festive, the installation nevertheless brings to mind such issues as overpopulation and the fact that scads of debris and salvage have been steadily populating the depths of the earth’s oceans for some time.

As a counterpoint to Shop Window Chandelier,  Danna set up the video installation Lure in one of High Wire Art’s interior galleries.  Here, a video featuring images of animals that lure things or gather in swarms is projected over a cluster of the artist’s wall-mounted globular sculptures that she coated with phosphorescent paint.  At intervals in the video, the imagery fades to black, at which point the sculptures on the wall glow in the dark, suggesting, as in Danna’s earlier works, that some kind of living bacteria is either destroying or rebirthing endangered underwater life forms.

"Internally Yours," 2016, found objects, recycled Danna sculpture, mixed media, installation at the R Gallery. Photo Courtesy of Alyssa Danna.
“Internally Yours,” 2016, found objects, recycled Danna sculpture, mixed media, installation at the R Gallery. Photo Courtesy of Alyssa Danna.

For Internally Yours (2016), Danna’s installation at the R Gallery, she staged an environment of mutating decorative objects using the format of one of the most common types of dwellings, a living room, which included filling the room’s closet with ornate objects enmeshed within dense globular matter.  For the salon’s centerpiece, she recycled her earlier sculpture Fester and altered it by stuffing its drawer to the max with many of the materials she has been using elsewhere, such as beads, melted candles, and silk flowers.  She also crowned it with artificial roses, in the way we grace a coffin, and provided a comfortable chair across from it so that viewers might sit for awhile and contemplate her self-described “subversive approach” to beautification.

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Contrasting with the intimate setting of Internally Yours, Danna’s installation Love After Love at Clamp Light Studios resembles an open courtyard with hanging plants in the center and a decorative frieze along the walls.  With the overriding theme of giving new love to things that had lost love, Danna made the sculpture at the installation’s core from something that was personally meaningful, a hanging macramé that her mother had made by hand in the 1970s.  As a tribute to her mother and also a symbol of new organic growth, she planted live camellia flowers into a mosaic vase filled with soil, held by the macramé.   On the walls, Danna exhibited a series of paper reliefs that she made by attaching cast paper sculptures of animals to sheets of printing paper embossed with subtle decorative patterns.  All but one of the prints in the series, entitled Pairs and the Proud One, feature pairs of animals interacting in a variety of positions, the exception being one relief in which a lone duck appears proud and happy as it faces the viewer.  While most of the reliefs pair the same animal together like the ones who were on their way to Noah’s Ark, the single duck and an unlikely coupling of a rabbit an owl seem to tell a revisionist story about survival.  After all, we are in an age marked by hybridity and change, so if one is to predict how we can survive environmental challenges, a retelling of Noah’s Ark should now allow for such recent developments as mixed and same-sex marriages, as well as for those who go it alone.

*Top Image: Alyssa Danna in her studio. Photo by David S. Rubin

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David S. Rubin

David S. Rubin is an independent curator, writer, and artist. He has been active in contemporary art for 40 years and has held curatorial posts at the Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans; MOCA Cleveland;...