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Marc Dennis - Devotion in the Time of Corona

Written by Vittoria Benzine

Marc Dennis works in an alchemy of art history and modernity. Armed with one brush and one palette, this Brooklyn-based artist combines elements from the Renaissance and Pre-Raphaelites with democratic imagery culled from pop culture, common to the surface levels of our collective consciousness.

Dennis grounds these pilfered references in pure technical virtuosity – hyperrealism so startling it takes effort to accept these are paintings and not photos. The synthesis yields a style distinctly Dennis’ alone – subversive, sexual, and sumptuous all at once. The artist’s latest series, Love in the Time of Corona, employs this approach in processing the past year. Crafted predominantly during the pandemic, each canvas cradles a sliver of Dennis’ actual heart, aching for discovery just beneath the revered visage of rapturous verve that’s brought him so much acclaim.

Love in the Time of Corona pushes Dennis’ hyperrealism to new heights. Here he achieves true trompe l’oeil, the complete (and often breathtaking) optical illusion of 3D reality. Meanwhile, the subject matter throughout this series trades contemporary shock value for the classics. Impeccable reproductions emblematic of the western art historical canon acquire fresh life alongside the artist’s convincing illusions, including wildlife and the paint-streaked walls of his studio space, specked with push pins and tape. Trompe l’oeil speaks to the universal human attraction to charlatanry—visual tricks are exciting, arresting, and flashy. Even without further contemplation, these canvases captivate. Oftentimes, human beings are liable to conflate the quasi-magic of illusion with love.

During the pandemic, Dennis pined after in-person experiences. He missed his loved ones, he missed exploration, and he missed time spent standing in front of the many storied artworks critical to his own painterly development. Locked away in his studio during quarantine, Dennis painted through the pangs of all that missing.

In From a Close Distance, the artist recreates The Princesse de Broglie by French Neoclassical artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, an artwork held hostage at the shuttered Metropolitan Museum of Art throughout Spring 2020. Dennis surrounds the Princesse with paint swatches and detail shots which appear to be taped on the wall beside her, but are actually part of the canvas proper, all crafted by the artist’s own hand. Further phantasmic snippets throughout the series include Van Gogh’s sunflowers and an image of the famous Love sculpture in Philadelphia, where Dennis once earned his BFA.

Other artworks, like the dynamic Richter’s Cat, use animals to elaborate on the classical artworks whose presence Dennis was coveting. The artist pays tribute to Gerard Richter’s iconic portrait titled Betty, while placing the painting with fabricated depth on a wall littered with paint. This is really how Dennis works in his studio, testing color and brushstrokes on the surrounding walls. An agile cat leaps across the canvas while Betty’s back is turned, throwing a full shadow over Richter’s infamous imagery. There is a freedom here which belies Dennis’ deepest desires in the throes of unprecedented lockdown.

Post-it notes proliferate the series as well. To cope with the chaos and fear, Dennis found comfort transcribing every single text he received from his loved ones, friends, collectors and strangers alike throughout isolation. The eponymous painting, Love in the Time of Corona, pulls from hundreds of such messages to cull a selection equal parts silly, smart, clever, absurd, and funny. The text messages included throughout this piece and others offer a well-rounded cross-section of comments related to the pandemic, the art world, Dennis’ own practice, and his life in general.

Beauty and love are red herrings. Just like trompe l’oeil uses paint to trick the mind into perceiving real objects, the ever-present sex appeal innate to this artist’s work can act like camouflage. Every detail’s outward beauty and striking realism obscures the fact of its careful curation. Nothing is accidental—each element is included by virtue of sheer intention. These are the precise shards of Dennis’ very heart, shattered by the past year’s omnipotent tragedy.

Love in the Time of Corona sheds a measure of sexiness, then, for a more devoted, workhorse type of love. This love is diligent, like the painstaking act of recreating an iconic artwork to cope with the pain of missing it. Through the intensity of this arduous labor, Dennis’ artwork becomes something greater than itself, even greater than the aesthetic pleasure it offers. Love in the Time of Corona embodies and honors love’s ability to sustain us through an utter lack of control. Love is, one way or another, the origin story of creation.


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