On ViewMurray Guy
April 16 – May 21, 2016
Moyra Davey’s career spans decades and is characterized by a kind of fascination with intimacy. Her earlier photographs train a tender eye on the everyday, lingering close to New York City newsstands, old pennies, or the dust under furniture. Her more recent move into video work fleshed out this aesthetic into personal narratives, with Davey reading essays over video filmed mostly in her apartment to tell stories about her sisters, her psychoanalysis, her reading.
Her work is, indeed, confessional in nature. But it’s compelling less for the ways in which Davey herself emerges from the narratives she constructs, and more for her exploration of autobiography as a formal structure. This crystallizes particularly well in the exhibition 7 Albums, which includes a selection of double-exposures, collage-like tableaus, and her signature folded-and-mailed prints, as well as her 2015 film Notes on Blue, originally commissioned by the Walker Art Center).
Notes follows the format of her previous films: Davey’s essayistic narration—which we sometimes see in action, the artist pacing and reading out loud in her apartment—links together its subsections. Its narrative develops in an open-ended way, propelled by the inclusion of older footage and uncharacteristically dreamy choreographed sequences of a woman wearing wings and performing on subway platforms. As always, the artist’s reading (along with viewing and listening) plays a key role; in addition to parsing through Borges, Anne Sexton, and P.J. Harvey, among others, the work, as its title suggests, owes much to Derek Jarman, whose Blue, a 1993 rumination on his deteriorating health at the hands of AIDS, becomes a way for Davey to discuss her own illness (she was diagnosed about a decade ago with multiple sclerosis). Like all of the material in 7 Albums, the film is composed of sequences shot either in or near Davey’s home, or drawn from her archives, lending an understated quality and, for the viewer, a sense of closeness—if not quite to the artist, then at least to the physical and literary spaces in which she works.
Through its formal oddities, Notes remains consistently self-conscious about the means of its own composition. While the footage included here is never differentiated by when or how it was produced, Davey juxtaposes qualities of film, moving between stark digital realism and shots with a more textural, Super 8-like quality. Technology produces something between tension and sustained curiosity; a particularly moving sequence shows Davey watching Jarman’s Blue on her iPhone on the subway (a nod, maybe, to images in her previous work of people reading on the train). Indeed, arguably the most intimate aspect of this work—the artist’s illness, and the blindness in one eye it caused, a key point of affinity between Davey and Jarman—serves as a pathway into a formal problem: representing what you see when that sight is compromised.
The selection of photographic works that accompany the film bear traces of the personal and nostalgic as well. As in Notes, a layering takes place: we see the past and the present meticulously—and very publicly—stacked and collaged, a deconstruction of the mechanisms of storytelling. A handful are sort of meta-images of arrangements of photographs in Davey’s home; in one, a large, wrinkled, black-and-white print hangs loose on a wall, adorned with a few smaller images as well as a scarf affixed at its top edge. On the glass table in front of this are small, colorful stars cut from Davey’s 1990s close-up photographs of sales receipts (also reappearing here in the form of a mailer work). Another triptych of photographs shows a similar tableau, but this time the large piece on the wall is accompanied by an image of a notebook containing notes on Jean Genet (a subject of Davey’s film Fifty Minutes). The same scene grows messier as one reads the images from left to right, the third photograph a double exposure in which the references contained are all but illegible.
Early in the film, Davey paraphrases a quote from Rainer Werner Fassbinder that has previously surfaced in her interviews and exhibition texts, invoking his idea of “the very personal having a wide resonance.” This idea, well-proven by the glut of first person media circulating at present, points to what’s so relatable about Davey’s work, as dense and angular as it can become in its textual references and narrative idiosyncrasies. But in Notes on Blue, as with elsewhere in Davey’s practice, this notion also nods to a kind of economical scale in art-making—an almost punk sense of how much one can do with images and memories they already possess. Set squarely within the framework of her own preexisting world, it’s Davey’s formal imagination that pushes an accessible and quotidian image-language into something beyond simple nonfiction.