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Nicole Carroll Art Consulting

DENNY DILLON: Good things in small packages by Ross Rice

Long time fans of Saturday Night Live can be pretty unforgiving about the 1980-81 season, the first without the breakout stars (Belushi, Murray, Radner, etc.) and original producer Lorne Micheals. With all new writers, staff, and cast members, as well as a slashed budget, new producer Jean Doumanian—previously a talent scout for the show—was handed a recipe for failure that year, and by all accounts she delivered. In retrospect, it’s not really fair to blame the individuals involved, many of whom went on to enjoy successful and fulfilling careers. The season still had a few funny moments thanks to occasionally good writing and soon-to-be megastar Eddie Murphy. And a certain actress/comedian/artist/Stone Ridge gallery owner named Denny Dillon.

How best to describe Denny Dillon? A compact bundle of radiant energy; impulsive, precise. You’ve seen her onscreen: asking to wipe John Travolta’s brow in a memorable Saturday Night Fever cameo, her role as ruthlessly loyal assistant Toby Pedalbee in the Cable Ace Award-winning HBO comedy Dream On, one of her many appearances on television: Night Court, Designing Women, Miami Vice; or just possibly during her blink-and-miss tenure with Saturday Night Live. She’s one of those immediately recognizable people who you’re not quite sure where you’ve seen before.

Denny has also had quite a distinguished run on Broadway, with revivals of Gypsy (with Angela Lansbury, 1974) and Thornton Wilder’s Skin of our Teeth (1975), and a stage version of Harold and Maude (1980). Her performance as Mickey in the Gershwin musical My One and Only (1983)—starring Tommy Tune and Twiggy—earned her a Tony Award nomination. Since moving upstate full time, she still gets down to Manhattan for various projects and voice-acting, notably for Disney’s Ice Age. Earlier this summer she was in a production of Prisoner on 2nd Avenue, at the Berkshire Theatre festival, Stockbridge MA, garnering great reviews from the New York Times.

This time, it’s Denny’s art works I’m checking out at her Drawing Room Gallery, in Stone Ridge. Denny’s drawings are succinctly whimsical, with sometimes wandering lines that are reminiscent of John Lennon’s line drawings, child-like without being the least bit childish, with some of the more detailed work suggesting Gahan Wilson. Mostly in black and white, Denny keeps her images simple, seen through small windows, no wasted space or lines.

To me the boxes are more fun. Colorful microcosms of collage, objects, and miniature figurines that command your full attention, they’re like a circus seen on a small 3D television, frozen in mid-action. It looks easy, but the elements selected seem to be perfect in a way that most collage artists can appreciate: where does she find this stuff? It takes a skilled collector’s eye, as well as artistic soul, to pull these off.

Denny demurs, admitting “I’ve been devoting my time this year mostly to other artists.” Recently she’s shown the work of Chris Hawkins, who has gained a new fan as a result: good friend (and colleague) Lily Tomlin. “The thing about my gallery, I just like it to be the unexpected. It’s what appeals to me, and I hope that my eye is quirky and original. I want everybody seen here to be unusual.” The reputation is spreading, more artists—like Peter Head, guitarist for Pitchfork Militia—are approaching her.

Head’s show is featured prominently in the Drawing Room’s front exhibition space: a roomful of handmade stringed instruments lining the walls, made from cans, boxes, dowels, and wires. Like you’ve entered some far backwoods hillbilly music store. It’s difficult to not strum them while passing by; they look like they want to be played.

In tandem with neighbor Chrissy Glenn of Pearl Arts Gallery, Denny is opening her larger barn space, and both galleries will be showing some of Denny’s newer works alongside a large exhibition of the new drawings and paintings by her good friend, noted sculptor/painter Gillian Jagger. It’s a nice local cooperative spirit, uniting these uniquely artistic women, all of whom have strong connections with both this region and the City.

And unlike most of her 1980 SNL contemporaries, Denny is still making people laugh, while teaching others to do the same. As well as doing shows with her own company, Improv Nation, performing at Actors & Writers Theater in Olivebridge and Stamford Center for Performing Arts (among others), she will be teaching an improvisation workshop at SUNY Ulster throughout the fall semester. With an exhibition of her “Art Inside the Box” works on Cape Cod coming up, Denny is keeping a full schedule.

And as time wears the asterisk away from that troubled year at SNL, all that’s left is that she can claim full alumni status of that select group of comedians. As it should be.

Denny Dillon will teach an improvistion workshop, Vanderlyn Hall, students lounge, SUNY Ulster 11/5, 7 PM, & along with Mary Louise Wilson, on 12/3 7 PM, a workshop in writing & improvisation, same location.

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