Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Gentle Rebellion: Moyra Davey at Murray Guy

Moyra Davey's Les Goddesses
We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Amanda Shubert, to our group. 

Moyra Davey’s small, unprepossessing gallery show at Murray Guy in Chelsea, New York City, on view until May 6, is hardly the art event of the season. Toronto-born, Davey now lives in New York, where her steady production of photographic and video work, astonishingly lyrical and persistently feminist, is dwarfed next to the conspicuous spectacle and titanic scale of much postmodern photography. (Davey’s gallery show coincides with a major retrospective of the work of Davey’s better known contemporary in feminist photography, Cindy Sherman, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.) All the same, the exhibition afforded me more pleasure, visual and intellectual, than any installation of contemporary work I’ve seen in years. Entitled Spleen. Indolence. Torpor. Ill-humour – a phrase taken from the journal of one of Mary Wollstonecraft’s rebellious daughters, whose stories are one dimension of the thrillingly multi-faceted video installation, Les Goddesses, at the heart of the exhibition – the show pairs two new gridded photographic series, “Trust Me” (2011) and “Subway Riders” (2012), with a sequence of Davey’s earliest photographs from the late 1970s. 

The eloquent counterpoint of these pieces is terrifically complex. The web of visual relationships within the photographic works is mirrored in the allusive, essayistic narrative Davey delivers in Les Goddesses. The 61 minute video installation, with voice over by Davey, draws together the biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughters Mary Shelley, Claire Clairmont and Fanny Imlay, the travel diary of Goethe, and the cinematic philosophies of Louis Malle and Jean-Luc Godard with fragmentary portraits of family members and friends, all set against stunning views of Davey’s apartment with all of its everyday dust and clutter suffused with light from open windows. It is as though we were looking into one of her photographs, perfectly still yet shot through with passing time.

The interwoven strands of the visual and the literary, the sensory and the intellectual, is typical of Davey’s work. Her catalog Long Life Cool White: Photographs and Essays by Moyra Davey (Yale University Press, 2008), pairs her photographs with an essay titled “Notes on Photography and Accident,” in which Davey, in the characteristic journal-like narrative style of her video installations, explores the quality of accident and chance in photography through the writings of Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes and Janet Malcolm. “Notes” reveals Davey’s sensibility as a photographer to be the sensibility of a reader, culling experience like a vast library for moments of unexpected brightness she captures like quotations. Her still life pictures have the slightly sleepy quality of a reader’s avidity, that softness blanketing a burning intensity.

 Les Goddesses

Davey’s contemporary work is almost exclusively still life. In 1984, she staged a retreat from photographing the human body, “until my subjects consisted of little more than the dust on my bookshelves or the view under the bed,” she explains in Les Goddesses. This shift away from the body, which Walter Benjamin described as “the most impossible of renunciations,” and her subsequent return in the 2012 series “Subway Riders,” becomes one subject of the exhibition. The renunciation and subsequent embrace of the body as subject is a touchstone for other themes floating through the exhibition: the biographical impulse, the contemporary obsession with art as a form of memorial, and the question of whether art and memory can affect some form of healing for suffering and loss.

"Trust Me" by Moyra Davey

“Trust Me” (2011), a grid of sixteen unframed still life photographs tacked to the wall, is surrounded in the gallery by selections from Davey’s early portraits of her five sisters in Montreal in the late 1970s. The juxtaposition foregrounds the absence of the figure in the contemporary photographs. “Trust Me” is one of Davey’s ‘air letter’ works. Each photograph in the series was folded like an envelope, taped, stamped and addressed on the face of the image, and mailed to Davey’s friend the poet Lynne Tillman. Tillman then composed a prose poem to accompany the work, cutting out and pasting a line on each photograph. (Davey’s gridded series are not narrative, but in this case the poem suggests that the two rows of eight images should be read from left to right, like lines of text.) “Most people will divulge more than you want to know,” Tillman’s poem begins, picking up on and providing a critical context for the memory album photographs from the ‘70s.

a detail from "Trust Me"
Like much of Davey’s still life work, “Trust Me” revolves around the home and conveys a sense of lived space, of the controlled disorder of a shared domesticity and the stories those rooms and their objects tell when they are emptied out of their inhabitants. Davey has an eye for the glimmers of a sensuous or lyrical reality found in the crevices of ordinary life: a stack of dusty letters on a radiator; the mottled caulking of bare walls; a cluttered medicine cabinet with creams, deodorant, Band-Aids, razors, and a mess of unidentifiable stoppered bottles. The range of colors and tones Davey brings out of empty rooms and household clutter is mesmerizing. “Trust Me” has a delicate luminosity, almost an iridescence.

Thirty years sit between “Trust Me” and the black-and-white portraits of Davey’s raven-haired sisters, and that passage of time becomes the subtext of all the work in the show. The standout work among the early photographs is “Jane” (1979), a portrait of Davey’s sister Jane in the bathtub. Sitting with her arms propped on the bathtub’s ledge, eyes cast downward, lost in thought, the portrait betrays a kind of unself-conscious self-consciousness on the part of both model and photographer, both bravado and vulnerability. “Jane” is echoed in one of the photographs in “Trust Me,” a still life of a filled bathtub with a couple of long, scraggly dun-colored hairs (presumably Davey’s) slicked to the side of the tub. In “Trust Me,” the feistiness of the ‘70s portraiture has resolved to a quiet intensity that finds feminist rebellion not in the mythography of portraiture but in a practice of radical attention to the ordinary. 

a detail from "Jane" (1979)
Les Goddesses crosses these two modes. It is preoccupied with foreign travel and transformation – Davey’s exquisitely composed narrative contains passages from Goethe’s Italy diary and follows Mary and Percy Shelley’s six week European tour – but visually it is a tour of Davey’s apartment, the film camera recording, as in her photographs, the banal details of the home (a bath towel hanging on a doorknob, newspaper clippings and notes taped to the wall) rendered luminous and extraordinary like in one of Edward Hopper’s painted interiors. For all the perspectival eclecticism and range available in moving pictures, Les Goddesses is firmly rooted in first person limited. In some scenes, Davey reads aloud from a script, but through most of the film she paces in front of the camera with a pair of headphones and a digital voice recorder on which she has pre-recorded the script as a prompt for her recitation. You can hear the recording, a thin murmur, beneath her voice, like an aural palimpsest. In a t-shirt and jeans she hikes up around her hipless waist as she walks, Davey is a wholly unself-conscious narrator. It’s as though her recitation were a form of meditation, or one of the everyday domestic rituals implied in her photographs. At one point, she picks up a series of dog-eared, bookmarked, lovingly beat-up books off of a shelf and blows a layer of dust off each one through an open window – three big breaths for each book. In another moment, in the middle of her recitation, she notices a child’s pair of winter boots perched anomalously on top of a bookshelf and swiftly removes them, without missing a beat.

For all its understated eloquence, the images and words in the exhibition have a kaleidoscopic quality, piling up and unfurling new connections. The longer I looked, the more I felt I was in an enchanted space of contemplation. The gallery began to feel like one of Davey’s photographs, in which a room or a piece of furniture comes to stand for an internal state. It made me half-crazy to think of leaving it all behind and, given the limited editions of the works (Les Goddesses is an edition of five, “Trust Me” in an edition of three, and “Subway Riders” is unique), perhaps not being able to find it again. 

And, yet, walking away seemed a necessary part of the experience. Davey’s aesthetic is animated by nostalgia for the privacy of the analog – the delicacy and power of her work comes in part from the way she relishes the ephemeral, accident and chance. It isn’t conservative, as nostalgia so often is; it’s a form of rebellion, a kind of tousled, hopeful romanticism persisting against the digital age. Take the ‘air letter’ photographs. If Davey’s photographs are letters, then they are both a form of self-reflection and a form of address. Their quality, and their subject, is intimacy: the place where the private and the public intersect, the kind of communication that is more personal for being shared. “Filmmakers who make installations instead of films are afraid of the real,” Godard pronounced, by the real referring, Davey proposes in Les Goddesses, to “confrontation and risk.” But today the senseless repetition of the media machine blunts the edge of that reality. Davey’s installation risks transience to protect the radical gesture of confrontation, the preciousness of encounter.

Spleen. Indolence. Torpor. Ill-humour is on view at Murray Guy (453 West 17th Street, New York, NY) through May 6, 2012. More information about the show can be found here.

–  Amanda Shubert is a founding editor of Full Stop, an online journal of literature and culture.  She works at the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Massachusetts.

No comments:

Post a Comment