Boston

Moyra Davey

Harvard Art Museums

“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 distinctions: 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.

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.

That photography has strong ties to the past, to loss, to the ephemeral, to death itself, is by now cliché. 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). These are images of day-to-day living presented in detail, the frame drifting to settle on the accumulations born of flat-line happiness, that fragile brand of human contentment that borders on boredom (and which typically—though usually only in retrospect—defines the best years of one’s life). Davey homes in on a heap on a kitchen shelf (Milk-Bones, multivitamins, a small leopard-print purse); looks the needle of an old turntable in the eye (as it dances over dusty vinyl); peruses her family’s bookshelves as they fill, empty, reconfigure, and overflow; documents a tangle of dirt and human hair between her dog’s furred toes. The push and pull of focus and perspective become affective tools—unquantifiable but deeply felt.

“Long Life Cool White” figured photography’s excess, its material and discursive spillover, pressing the optical unconscious into overt focus. The show’s images displayed a quiet, devastating fidelity to and address of the lens, to what and how one sees while seeing through it. Examples of this looking at looking were abundant, as in three montage pieces collectively titled Calendar of flowers, gin bottles, steak bones, 2008, and individually titled Blow, Bloom, and Bone: delicate constellations of domestic still lifes, moody landscape shots, pictures of pictures, and screen grabs from the artist’s recent video Fifty Minutes, 2006 (shown concurrently at Harvard’s Carpenter Center in the group exhibition “Two or Three Things I Know About Her,” also curated by Molesworth). Books, buttons, newspaper stands, radios, refrigerators, bottles, beds: These are major players in Davey’s story of things tired, used, damaged, abandoned, lying around, or left over. They may be evidence of fate or accident or persistence, but in being photographed they assume an unexpected order.

One crucial element of the show did not hang on the Fogg’s walls at all. Davey has long found her photography to be of a piece with her other favorite activities: reading and writing. The catalogue for the show, then, became a proper book, one filled with images (not illustrations) mostly by Davey and an essay by the artist, titled “Notes on Photography & Accident,” that entangles her practice, her life, her analysis, and her favorite ruminations on photography (penned by Barthes, Walter Benjamin, Janet Malcolm, and Susan Sontag). I read it voraciously, feeling the way I do when I look at Davey’s photographs—alienated, awake, and totally at home (if not necessarily my own). While reading, I wrote in Davey’s margins, leaving exclamations, questions, notes that were less commentary than conversation. Then I went back and examined again—for the hundredth time—all the images by Davey I could find and saw in them details I hadn’t noticed before. Well, I’ll be damned.

Johanna Burton is an art historian and critic based in New York.