New York

Nancy Davidson

Dorsky Gallery Curatorial Programs

Nancy Davidson’s best-known works are her sculptures in decorated latex: large colored balloons that she trusses and ties, wraps and straps, with ropes and lingerie-like fabrics. In the parentage of these pieces are debates over sculpture’s inside and outside, weight and solidity (or lack of it), and also about its proper place: The balloons may be moored to floor, wall, or ceiling, or may float or hang in the air. As much as Davidson’s rubbers discuss formal ideas, though, they talk more about sex, through their tight skins (poke them and they’ll pop), their lacy and frilly accessories, and the bosomy and buttocky shapes they take as they swell around the ropes that squeeze them. These curvy exaggerations of women’s bodies are witty and devious probes of erotic desire.

There were no balloons in Davidson’s recent show, “nobutsaboutit,” which instead contained photographs of two of those works—Musette, 1994, and Spin Too!, 1995. More than simple documentation, these digitized images frame details of the sculptures and also double them, creating long horizontal pictures that are bilaterally symmetrical, repeating the same form on either side of their centerline. This device translates into two dimensions the shaping effects of the ropes and ties in Davidson’s sculpture: Artfully paired, the arc of a balloon turns hyperbolically feminine. In Bonnnefemmerie I and . . . 2 (both works 1997–98), the netting that covers part of Spin Too! becomes a ridiculously transparent negligee clinging elastically to a voluptuous bust. Its pattern explicitly suggests areola and nipple, and there are also intimations of a spider’s web, and of a fantasy association between women and spiders that dates back at least to Ovid. In the “Fevvers” series, views of different fragments of the same work alternately become cleavage and butt. Again, the accoutrements push to a point what a man might hope for in a classy bordello.

The titles “Bonnnefemmerie” and “Fevvers” are borrowed from the novelist Angela Carter, the title of a third group, “Scrupulously Fake,” from the cultural theorist Gayatri Spivak. Clearly a body of feminist thinking that emerged in the ’80s informs Davidson’s work, which examines the roles imposed on women in the theater of male expectation (an investigation that was a feminist commitment from the start) while also allowing a space for women to act in that theater without being limited by it—in effect, by taking over the play. Davidson’s sculptures work this line of thought through their formal inventiveness, for there is a certain hilarity and even joyfulness in their comically rounded bulges and furrows, in their colors and fussy corsetry. The photographs are milder, yet at the same time, paradoxically, more troubling and ambiguous.

The sculptures have fleshy ideas, but seen whole they are clearly abstract, and this balance of abstraction and human relations roots their incisive wit. The photographs, on the other hand, may play with abstraction—in their symmetry and geometry, which create Art Deco, Rockette-like patterns—but in cropping a detail from a balloon they somewhat disguise it as their source and end up closer to the body. In fact this kind of fragmentation echoes the objectifying strategies of pornography and produces a certain awkwardness, at least on the male viewer’s part—the awkwardness of a man caught looking down a woman’s blouse instead of at her face. This response could be a rich vein for an artist to mine, but so far, at least, Davidson’s photographs provoke it only gently.

David Frankel