New York

Moyra Davey

Murray Guy

The objects populating Moyra Davey’s photographs—analog electronics, unplugged and shelved; empty bottles of whiskey, appearing wherever they were finished—are things whose primary use-value has expired, items largely out of exchange, which exist, in curator Helen Molesworth’s words, “at the margins of commodity culture.” Among the works in the artist’s recent show at Murray Guy, titled “My Necropolis,” Davey’s “Copperheads,” 1990, a series of close-ups of Abraham Lincoln’s profile on the face of the US currency with the least worth, perhaps pushes this notion the furthest, while also eloquently summarizing how the exhibition as a whole evinced not only a refusal to fetishize the new but also a sense that these impressions of spent desires are images received, rather than taken.

In Davey’s 1994 “Newsstand” series (from which four works were also on view here), she created a Becher-like typology of these ubiquitous freestanding structures. At midrange, Davey’s camera receives the gaze of the almost invariably male attendants, freeze-framing each within his world of pocket-change commodities—packs of gum, cigarettes, and shelves of glossy mags, whose cover images of retouched female bodies sell the deodorant ads that finance them. There’s a sense here, too, that these scenes were not so much shot to be recorded as that they were stilled so that the artist could “read” them.

Reading—in all its guises—is important to Davey (she has written two books on the subject), and it was here the focus of My Necropolis, 2009, the video that, viewed from a firm couch provided by the artist, formed this show’s centerpiece. The setup resonated with the video’s grounding reference, a 1931 letter from Walter Benjamin to his friend Gershom Scholem, in which he describes the apartment he is newly renting: a living space with odd furnishings—no desk, only a couch, and from that couch, a panoramic view that includes a clock that Benjamin says has become “a luxury it is difficult to do without.” Throughout the video we hear a woman, offscreen, reading and rereading the letter many times. On one occasion we hear her voice as the camera follows the words on the page, so that viewers take in not just the text but its underscored sections and the notes in the margins, as if the mechanisms of its reception were as urgent as the letter itself.

Davey also gives the text to eight friends and family members for their interpretation. One of them suggests that if Benjamin had been living in crisis at the time, he would have been living only in the present, the passing of time a luxury. Another sees the clock framing time the way the window frames Benjamin’s view, the richness of lived experience made visible as it happens. Views of the cemeteries of Paris intercut these interviews and musings on the text, showing the final resting places of Gertrude Stein, Félix Guattari, Jean-Martin Charcot, and others—many littered with the decomposing messages of their present-day admirers. If one thinks as well of the men in their newsstands, their days marked by newspapers, months by magazines and expiration dates of candy, the clock to which Benjamin referred takes on ever-broader dimensions.

From the gallery couch one could also take in the panoramically hung 32 Photographs from Paris, 2009, a sequence of images showing a selection of Parisian scenes, including keys in a locked door, café tables with extinguished cigarettes, and a Galeries Lafayette city map cut topologically into a spiral. Davey, who took these photos in Paris last year, had mailed them to friends, and the marks of transmission (postage, date stamping, address) they bear suggest that they not only metaphorically depict but also embody the passage of time. Gazing at these pictures, from the My Necropolis video I heard the voice of the artist’s teenage son Barney poignantly stating his own view of these spiraling ramifications: “[A clock] can say a lot of things . . . if you have time to kill.”

Caroline Busta