Moyra Davey: Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA

By Burton, Johanna | Artforum International, November 2008 | Go to article overview

Moyra Davey: Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA


Burton, Johanna, Artforum International


"WELL, I'LL BE DAMNED!" Standing at the entrance to "Long Life Cool White: Photographs by Moyra Davey"--a survey of the artist's photographs from the past two decades (and her first museum show), curated by Helen Molesworth--was a fifty-something man in khakis, hands on hips, shaking his head vigorously, grinning, clearly in the pleasurable throes of realizing he had been duped. It seemed that he had just read the wall label for a group of one hundred eight-by-ten C-prints, each placed under Plexiglas and all hung in a neat grid. A lesson in infinitely subtle comparison, every photograph depicts a topographic-type terrain, clearly related to the others but laden with distinction: Almost against one's will, the eye takes to grazing, roaming across contours both abstract and yet naggingly familiar. With scale completely discombobulated, we could be peering at petri dishes or aerial maps; these are images at once inappropriately intimate and dispassionately arid.

"Copperheads," Khaki-man had probably said aloud as he read the title of the series, before he burst out with his epiphanic expletive. For assembled here, under his nose, were so many photographs of the most ubiquitous, if least noticed, portrait in America: Abe Lincoln's visage adorning this nation's penny. Tarnished green and fuzzy, gouged and abused, or rubbed flat and smooth, a nearly-but-not-quite-valueless currency asserts, in Davey's iterations, a strangely stubborn material persistence.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

It is to this latter point--the dumb, perverse perseverance of things--that much of Davey's work attends. Indeed, while Copperheads, 1990-92, the earliest work on view at the Fogg, clearly takes up the unstable notion of "exchange value" (its volatility underscored during the moment of the work's conception--the late 1980s and early '90s), it also offers unexpected visual surplus, available only up close. Here are traces of things taken away (in the form of scratches, scuffs) or added (lodged detritus, human oils) that offer proof of transactions made, of years passed, of contact (however fleeting), of relationships (however superficial). So the surprise in suddenly righting oneself in front of the unruly "dollar" amassed in Copperheads is not only due to having images congeal where before they eluded. The most telling revelation has to do with the way these parts of a whole hint at events and lives far beyond them.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

That photography has strong ties to the past, to loss, to the ephemeral, to death itself, is by now cliche. But for an artist like Davey, who takes the discursive framework of photography as part of its very materiality, there is no getting around (and no desire to do so) the heaviness of every photograph. She imbues her photographs with this connotative heaviness (recalling Roland Barthes's description of the photograph and its referent as belonging "to that class of laminated objects whose two leaves cannot be separated without destroying them both"), or, rather, simply allows it to be present, meaning that her images feel both naked and overdetermined (this is meant as a compliment). …

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