New York

Moyra Davey, 1943 (detail), 2018, 108 C-prints, tape, postage, ink, each print 18 x 12".

Moyra Davey, 1943 (detail), 2018, 108 C-prints, tape, postage, ink, each print 18 x 12".

Moyra Davey

Galerie Buchholz | New York

Moyra Davey, 1943 (detail), 2018, 108 C-prints, tape, postage, ink, each print 18 x 12".

The only coin ever made in the United States that can be picked up with a magnet is the 1943 steel cent. It was produced in a time of austerity at the height of World War II, when copper was being rerouted to munitions manufacturing. Steel pennies coated in zinc may have conserved necessary metal, but they caused all kinds of problems, too. They were unusually light. They were often mistaken for dimes. They got stuck in vending machines. They rusted quickly. A few years ago, someone gave the artist Moyra Davey a whole cache of them as a gift. They had aged weirdly and unevenly, having become by turns gray and red and flecked with rust, craggy and smooth and corroded by time. Earlier this year, Davey began to photograph these pennies—seemingly accidental portraits of Abraham Lincoln—and print them on her now signature aerograms, which she mailed in succession to the staff of Galerie Buchholz, her gallery in New York.

One hundred and eight of these images formed a vital link in this exhibition, titled “1943,” after the series. Both physically and conceptually, the aerograms occupy the space between Hell Notes, 1990/2017, the first film Davey ever made (rarely shown and only recently digitized), and a handful of her more current videos and related photographs, including Hemlock Forest, 2016, and Wedding Loop, 2017, which deal with the death of Chantal Ackerman and the lives of Davey’s many sisters, respectively. By her own admission, the artist has a healthy obsession with the relationship between “money and shit.” It is present in Hell Notes—a haphazard meditation on currency, excrement, and the bedrock of Manhattan—and runs through the core of several later videos. But what also binds Hell Notes to the Lincoln portraits, and to Hemlock Forest, is Davey’s fascination with the tension between opposites, which she often returns to, doubles, and repeats. Over and over she ping-pongs between the subjects of mother and child (the artist and her son Barney; Ackerman and her mom), between life and work, public and private, movement and stillness, city and country, inside and out. She restages photographs from earlier in her career and reshoots scenes from Ackerman’s films.

As with her aerograms, Davey has perfected a kind of signature style in her videos, a mode of address that finds her wandering restlessly through the rooms of her apartment, a smartphone in her hand, a tiny microphone clipped to her T-shirt, and a set of headphones plugged into her ears, listening to a text she’s written and recorded, which she is playing back to herself and repeating out loud, line by line, for us. She approaches and retreats from her windows, eyeing a now-familiar view of Upper Manhattan, somewhere near the northern reaches of the 1 line. Her voice and the cadence of her speech have a very particular rasp and rhythm, halting but insistent. In a way, Wedding Loop and Hemlock Forest join Davey’s magisterial Les Goddesses, 2011, to form a single, long-standing, and sustained rumination on what it means to be an artist, a woman, a mother, a friend, a wife, ambivalent and passionate; and continually coming to the same conclusion: that to work is everything, and that to admit this is to triumph over guilt, anxiety, and shame. She is happiest when she is making something, shooting scenes, writing. The “she” is both Davey and Ackerman but also “us,” or rather anyone who is watching and shares her interest in feminism and psychoanalysis; catches her references to Mary Wollstonecraft, Donald Winnicott, and Elena Ferrante, and says to themselves: “Yes, that’s it, exactly.” This is the tremendous subtlety of Davey’s work: She scatters the world with her mail and makes long, cinematic missives about her own interior process of reading, writing, and thinking. Her videos and photographs seem to be so much about her, her sisters, her family, her body, her neuroses. More than mere self-absorption, however, these processes of reading, writing, and thinking are a vital currency, a mode of exchange, a material we trade and share. Whatever their composition and however they oxidize, the idea that they are public endeavors, that an active mind is urgent and necessary, is Davey’s reciprocal gift to us. Her work is a jangle of things from which to make our own.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie