New York

View of “Davina Semo,” 2019. Photo: Pierre Le Hors.

View of “Davina Semo,” 2019. Photo: Pierre Le Hors.

Davina Semo

Davina Semo’s sculptures have an unvarnished quality that can make them tough to love. Of course, she’s well aware of this condition, and based on the evidence of “ALL THE WORLD,” her solo exhibition at Marlborough Contemporary, she’s not much inclined to alter it. The artist’s stated aim is to reflect the present-day urban environment with all its awkward disjunction and waste, so the objects she engineers are supposed to be visually grating. But they come up short—the patina of modish roughness combined with an attempt at a refreshing honesty feels a little too stage-managed for (dis)comfort.

Semo’s installation featured at least one worthwhile component, however; every so often, a soft chime would reverberate through the gallery. The source of this welcome interruption to an otherwise unrelenting experience was a series of bells, cast by the artist in rough-hewn, patinated bronze and suspended from plastic chains. Reviving a motif from “FUBAR,” her last show at this gallery, Semo here used the bells as components for seven ungainly sculptures. Visitors were invited to move the wooden clappers, thereby activating their function as an “expression of liberty, a call to action, a call to community, and a warning,” per the show’s press release. The sound was evocative of a school bell or a church bell—though whether it was galvanizing or alienating depended on the listener.

The sculptures to which these bells were appended were hefty “bales” of reclaimed aluminum, a material that varied in appearance from silvery pressed panels to wild tangles of piping and colored wire. Sprayed hastily onto their surfaces were what looked like serial numbers, suggesting an ordering principle, the exact nature of which remained obscure. And mounted on the surrounding walls were seven large rectangular acrylic mirrors, each in a different flat color and dotted with dozens of ball bearings, like a fridge covered with novelty magnets. Everything the mirrors reflected was slightly distorted due to the slight inconsistencies of the panels’ surfaces, producing a queasy, fun-house atmosphere. And all of Semo’s pieces bear showy run-on titles, many of which hint at some sort of postapocalyptic narrative, such as the “bale” piece “IT IS HARD,” SHE SAID, “TO IMAGINE THE WORLD AS IT WAS, 2019.

Semo’s aesthetic has been compared to those of Bruce Nauman and Eva Hesse. Though Semo does share their openness to unlovely modern materials and methods, she lacks their formal inventiveness and fluency. Her use of casting in particular gives pause; on paper it reads like a pitch-perfect strategy, a quick and dirty route to merciless repetition that also aligns her with numerous other self-conscious, latter-day manipulators of the Minimalist tradition—think Rachel Whiteread or Virginia Overton. Yet in practice, it diminishes her work’s impact by making her “process” explicit, revealing an all-too-strategic mode that precludes any sought-after aura of violence, danger, or even spontaneity (Nauman casts, too, of course, but manages to retain an abrasive edge).

Semo tries to reflect, literally and figuratively, our sick, sad world, but her work falls short of the necessary bodily and emotional connection. The urge to prettify her well-chosen objects and materials, no matter how slightly, ultimately does her intentions a disservice. While born from anxiety around an already well-advanced environmental decline, “ALL THE WORLD” stepped back from the brink. 

Michael Wilson