Critics’ Picks

View of “Moyra Davey: Hell Notes,” 2017.

View of “Moyra Davey: Hell Notes,” 2017.


Moyra Davey

Alte Brücke 2 / Maininsel
December 9, 2017–January 28, 2018

In a sublime yet humble installation, almost five hundred images from Moyra Davey’s “Copperheads” series from 1990 to 2017 are tacked up in vast, tightly arranged grids. These microphotographic prints showing Abraham Lincoln’s profile on US pennies—fascinatingly worn, scratched, gouged, abraded, rusted, calcified—themselves show wear. Folded into quarters, sealed with fluorescent tape, addressed, stamped, and sent through the mail, the prints are irrevocably marked. The photo paper, whose gloss repels the impressions of postmarks, suppresses official indications of time and circulation in favor of the purely material. Davey, it seems, is interested in the look of things as the world eats them up.

For those familiar with Davey’s “Copperheads,” an addition to that body of work here is actually quite old. The Super-8 film Hell Notes, 1990, made just as the aforementioned series was launched and screened only once before, in 1991, is a crucial companionate work. A carefully structured non-narrative essay in the vein of Hollis Frampton, Hell Notes as a meditation on the relations between money, food, and excrement compellingly, yet sadly, still resonates. We move between different New York sites, including Central Park, a gold vault, a public toilet, a tourist ferry, and the artist’s apartment, where she recounts stories gathered from family members that reveal how financial anxieties evolve into neuroses around eating and shitting. In a section titled “Meatball Hero Lecture,” Davey explains to a friend, who gradually loses interest in his sandwich, Sigmund Freud’s and Martin Luther’s theories about the unrealized potential value of shit. “If money were shit, which then became food,” she says, “then it would fully gratify the infantile desire.” Later, we gaze at a sauté pan in which a bunch of pennies sizzle in a foaming bed of lard—indeed, looking quite like shit, and you certainly wouldn’t want to eat it.