New York

Penny Davenport, Animal Sacrifice, 2010, ink on paper, 7 1⁄2 × 11".

Penny Davenport, Animal Sacrifice, 2010, ink on paper, 7 1⁄2 × 11".

Penny Davenport

Penny Davenport maps nebulous environments of waves, hills, curtains, rippling mountains, clouds, starscapes, and muted rainbows; the enigmatic denizens of these realms are sundry. “Silent Ancestors,” her solo exhibition at Fortnight Institute, spanned ten years of drawings in media such as ink, pencil, watercolor, and oil pastel. The works were unframed, inviting close inspection, and arranged in single rows along the length of two walls. Displayed in a vitrine were several pieces (some of which were treated with wax) that resembled antiquated, yellowy vellum.

The artist’s hand is apparent everywhere in the drawings, which are blanketed in short arrhythmic lines that seemed to tally hours, days, and years; each discrete marking is part of a continuum. Davenport favors this hatching technique to convey texture and depth, and the method is particularly effective for rendering the hair or fur of the nonhuman creatures who inhabit her images. The staccato, percussive strikes of pen on paper are miraculously coaxed into softness. Figural outlines and facial features are frequently wobbly, and her stippling can veer into confettied chaos. While the dominant ink colors are blue and black, the watercolors tend toward breezy pastels that contrive to waft into (or from) an unseen layer, as in the ethereal Moments Go So Slow and Posh Doggy, both 2017, whose hazy subjects appear to disappear. In whispering grays and brown (plus a hint of blue), Moments Go So Slow depicts a gathering of eight upright animal beings who exude patience; some of them face different directions, but they form a serene collective of liminal bodies. The absence of urgency is monkish. Indeed, this is a world without malice.

The gallery’s press release references illuminated manuscripts, and yes, this allusion resonated, to some extent. However, while some of her characters tap into the mischief of drolleries and bestiaries, they are mostly kindred and kindly: bears, dogs, bunnies, plush friends—no vulgar hijinks. Even the spooks didn’t quite startle. Her creations are more conscientious than any paranoiac medieval monsters in that they impart tenderness. The drawings are not meant to frighten or bewilder but to tell stories, some of which are familiar, if wordless—like sensate lullabies. With a hint of allegory, many of the works’ titles read as poem fragments: Sea Shame Dog Master, Treat Her to the Skies, Someone Going Away, Not Angels Not Humans. Figures engage with each other, often touching, and their eyes convey feeling. Gazes are directed at the viewer, as if the subjects are posing for family portraits—or pretending to, like the distracted interspecies creatures of Pink Nose, 2017.

When face-to-face with Davenport’s characters, one is moved by their expressive benevolence and vulnerability—and therein lay the charm. The simplicity is not easily explained, perhaps because it’s obsessive. For instance, the background of Darkness, 2019, is riddled with eyes that see you before you see them. An entity looms large and appears to be attended by two birds in profile, which might also be the ears of that semi-smiling chummy blob, who is rendered in a spiraling black-and-white chevron pattern that almost resembles chain mail. The images were all quite comforting, like silence in the wee hours of the night.

Davenport construes the depths of night as ceremonial, a period when rites of passage are performed. The black-inked and somber Animal Sacrifice, 2010, depicts a standing entity with its hand on the head of a kneeling figure whose wrists are bound; the sky is starry, full of faces or masks. The scene is worrying and commanding. Meanwhile, the scalloped waves of The Sea, 2012, are surely hiding something.

Comparisons to Davenport’s art include Gustave Doré’s etchings and Unica Zürn’s automatic drawings. I was additionally reminded of Yuri Norstein’s dreamy animation Yozhik v tumane (Hedgehog in the Fog), 1975, and the work of Lillian Hoban, illustrator of a children’s book series about an endearing young badger, Frances, and her family. What’s not to love? Childhood is the elephant in the room. Comings and goings are not always clear in Davenport’s worlds, which is to say that the veils are many. The magic is in her breakthrough to the other side of time, where ancestral pageantry plays out.