New York

Tim Davis

Bohen Foundation

It has been argued that all artists are political: They either fight the system (the art establishment, the government, the structure of society) explicitly in their work, or support it implicitly by remaining voiceless. Tim Davis presents a third possibility. Traveling the country like Robert Frank did in the 1950s (a conservative era that’s become a touchstone for our own), he photographed objects and people in a variety of settings: a gun show at a mall, a communist summer camp, political rallies. Titling the series “My Life in Politics” (2002–), he places himself as an observer rather than a direct participant.

Installed at the Bohen Foundation, Davis’s photographs form an exhibition-cum-diary, with images accompanied by fragments of text reproduced in a “newspaper” about the show. Rather than explain the images, Davis offered imagistic, psychological background material. The photograph Grandmother’s Buttons, 2002, for example, triggers a memory of his lefty activist grandma : “When I was twelve, we chained ourselves to part of Cape Canaveral. She told me she felt guilty that she’d never been arrested, but proud she’d marched on Washington. . . . This is pale nostalgia. Can the photograph cure it?” An oil stain (a perfect signifier for contemporary geopolitics) is identified merely as Nixon Monument, Nixon Birthplace, 2002, but explained thus: “After driving all the way to San Clemente and being told politely—as only old Republican ladies can be polite—that no tripods were allowed in the library, this stain was my only recourse.”

Modeled after Walker Evans’s Depression-era American Photographs (1938) (which also influenced Frank’s The Americans [1958]), Davis’s images provide a shorthand for both the political moment and a study of the potentially engagé artist in a confused and confusing era. Where much recent work (from Olav Westphalen to Daniel Joseph Martinez) has focused on fringe elements like the Unabomber, Davis’s “politics” are mundane to the point of absurdity: A taco stand is painted with text declaring ONE PEOPLE, ONE NATION, ONE TACO, ONE DESTINY.

“My Life in Politics” is both an oblique self-portrait and a portrait of the United States. But can the two be separated? As Arthur Danto recently stated in these pages, one can renounce citizenship but not being an American. Nevertheless, we are far from the days of Gilbert Stuart, a tattered copy of whose iconic presidential portrait figures in Davis’s Thrift Shop Washington, 2004, which greeted visitors at the exhibition’s entrance. Rather than offer a utopian fix, Davis instead throws his signs and signifiers into the air. Politics, particularly in the face of defeat, is about gestures: the filibuster, the oil stain, the photo of a Rush Limbaugh book display that garners Davis’s tersest comment, “Enough said.”

Davis documents the way contemporary politics works on a velvet-rope model, emphasizing the divide between insider and outsider. Photographs such as his Closed Circuit, 2003, which depicts a television in the office of a Massachusetts state legislator tuned to a closed-circuit broadcast of the senate floor, illustrate the way in which the political scene is now twice removed by technology. We can see further than ever into the halls of power, while still being kept at a safe distance from them.

But there are always images, which commemorate or memorialize the effort at effective dissent. At a moment when it might be more dangerous to do something—as the case of Steven Kurtz suggests—Davis’s images are relatively safe, documenting the battle rather than fighting on its front lines. However, at the very end of the exhibition’s “newspaper,” in reference to his photograph Election Map, 2004, even Davis seems to give up hope. “I propose secession,” he says. “Honestly, even one big union won’t help us now . . . This country is a tragedy, literally. Fatal flaw and all.” One only hopes his words, like his images, are documentary but not prophetic.

Martha Schwendener