by Jan Avgikos
GALERIE BUCHHOLZ | MARCH 1 – APRIL 7, 2018
The history of art is written, first, by organizing the chaos of myriad forms of artistic practice into neat parcels, and then, policing those territories forever more. For example, there’s conceptual art, distinct from feminist art, and never the twain shall meet. Movements were more pronounced in the ’60s and ’70s, but fast-forward to artists who emerged in the ’90s, and the firewalls come tumbling down. Many found their footing through a series of dislocations, sometimes contaminating the purported purity of form with personal references and fiddling with idioms of presentation. One result was to mingle institutional critique with a surplus of subjectively driven content. You could think of Felix Gonzalex-Torres in this respect. You could also think of Moyra Davey.
Davey is primarily known as a photographer, and in this medium she has produced substantial bodies of work. The transition from analogue to digital is the background noise to her photographic series, including 1943. Installed floor to ceiling in a large grid that spans two walls, 108 individual close-up photographs of the head side of pennies featuring Lincoln’s portrait. The pennies are magnified so as to focus our attention on the ravages wreaked on Lincoln’s serialized image. The evidence of damage is overwhelming. As if in stop-motion, Lincoln repeatedly, literally, fades from view.
These particular coins, minted from steel in lieu of copper in 1943 during wartime, are the index of patriotic effort. Printed so much larger than life, in such an honorific way, it’s possible to read pathos into the picture, as if these portraits were memorials to vanished ideals. While we might be enthralled with thoughts of Lincoln’s symbolic value, we’re also aware that we are being drawn into an extended examination of pennies, which, in the age of ATMs, electronic transfers, and debit cards, are next to worthless. How many of us have just thrown them away! No more of this: “A penny saved is a penny earned” or yearning for the past. Where is value these days? What holds up?
Davey’s C-prints, on Fuji Crystal Archive Paper, at first appear to be multiple copies of the same image. Closer inspection reveals that each image is unique, and each object is also an original. The idea of loss ricochets from object to abstract ideal to the very body of the photograph itself. Getting in the way of the image, drawing attention to the object itself, writing, postmarks, stamps, names and addresses, and fold marks litter the surfaces of these photographs.
Davey processes her photographs twice. After she produces the image as a photograph, she produces the object by folding each print into a mailer, mailing them to particular people, and then retrieving them. The gesture demotes the fine art photograph to the status of an art poster. It intentionally confuses the space of circulation of a reproduction (the gallery flier) and the real thing—the art itself. It used to be called “mail art.” Today, Davey’s gesture captures diminished value. The body of the photograph—that once perfect original object—is no longer sacrosanct but rather flawed with the varieties of marks made during transit that are incidental, random, and real. The photographs are transformed, much like the Lincoln portraits that reside on their surfaces.
Davey’s parallel practice as a filmmaker is showcased in this exhibition with three films, including the first film she ever made—Hell Notes (1990) on Super 8 film, shown only once before in 1991; and two contemporary films—Hemlock Forest (2016) and Wedding Loop (2017). Themes are shared with her photographic series, but the lasting impression is that she is, first and foremost, a filmmaker, for it is here that the conceptualist meets the feminist. She recently digitized and re-edited Hell Notes, but it’s pure vintage. The Twin Towers gleam in tourist-style footage of Manhattan taken on a Circle Line tour; secret gold vaults are revealed beneath Nassau Street in the Financial District; and the luscious foliage of Central Park looks particularly edenic. In between we see the “normal” stuff, such as footage of bathrooms (she chose nice old-style marble ones), piles of garbage, and granite rocks. We also see that she was reading theory, including Freud, developing a symbolic language, and trying to get at the problem of the elusiveness of happiness.
Her recent films are equally self-reflexive. She is a constant fixture in both, pacing back and forth in front of the camera as she dispassionately narrates episodes in her life that have the resonance of literature. Frequently, she turns to literary sources to parse the complexity of life and art, and to play back her own dilemmas and observations. It’s clear she’s using film, photography, and literature as a way to locate herself. Visuals migrate from iPhones and computer screens, to the vistas beyond her windows, to photographs pinned to walls—all within the context of interiors that are, emphatically, her own. It is her body, her pets, her mother and sisters, her son and his friends, her stories about them all, her life that is on display.
In Hemlock Forest, she excavates her private life but also the problems she faces as an artist—being swept away by Chantal Ackerman’s films, being on edge before a shoot, almost taunting herself about her art, about what to do. She queries herself: “To live one’s life, or to tell it?” She asks her son if he keeps a diary. “I’d rather live my life than narrate it,” he quips. Quoting from Mary Wollstonecraft, or Ackerman herself, or a myriad of other writers she identifies with, she acknowledges she’s “reliant on the words of others.” “We all sample,” she intones. “We all do ‘covers’ as a way of expressing love and allegiance.”
In Wedding Loop (2017), Davey takes up the enigmas of identity, cycling through ruminations on her dysfunctional family and who she is in their midst. She includes meditations on Julia Margaret Cameron, another of her artistic “mothers,” who permissions her own love and doubt and artistic practice. Davey speaks about “decreating” herself. Whether she plumbs her fear of failure and feelings of worthlessness or is distracted by the sheer banality of life, the viewer senses she is continuously deposing herself as a means of arrest in an attempt to grasp life at all.
JAN AVGIKOS is a critic and historian who lives and works in NYC and the Hudson Valley.