Throughout her career, New York-based Canadian artist Moyra Davey has explored the relationships between photography and language, and between the still and moving image. The exhibition Moyra Davey: The Faithful at the National Gallery of Canada follows the many turns, experiments and revisitations of the personal archive that have informed the artist’s practice since the 1970s. In addition, works from the Gallery's collection are included as a “show-within-a-show”, to pay homage to artists including Walker Evans and Gabor Szilasi, who have fascinated Davey over the years.
As a curator of photography, I first came upon Davey’s work in The Modernist Document exhibition, as part of the 1999 Mois de la Photo at Galerie d’art Leonard & Bina Ellen in Montreal. Curated by the late Nancy Shaw, the show explored the photograph’s capacity to serve as a record and authority and, conversely, as a means to question those very functions through artistic explorations into perception, subjectivity and knowledge. Davey’s contribution consisted of work drawn from her series Books and Dust (1999). Shaw was intrigued by Davey’s photographic “mapping” of book piles in her domestic environment, delighting in the formal richness of the imagery and its psychological investment in “collecting, documenting, and apprehending knowledge.” The images captured a contrary condition whereby the books' promise of organization and narrative stability, and perhaps instruction, was countered by both their casual placement on tables and shelves and by the coating of dust.
To my mind, Davey’s concentration on her immediate environment was a continuation of feminist inquiry into the circumstances of women in the domestic sphere. Her choice to present traces of human activity – and not the human subject itself – accorded with feminist proscriptions regarding objectification of the body through the photographic gaze. And yet, the books were corporeal and the dust replete with allusions to mortality.
Similarly, her Copperheads series (1989–90) consisted of macro-lens images of American pennies, whose marked and gouged surfaces again called attention to their handling by innumerable persons. Davey’s emphasis on the material became even more noteworthy throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, when photography was moving from analog to digital. Her colour works, including her 1994 Newsstands series, emphasized interior, psychological spaces. Both favour the dogged presence of the object. The cramped spaces of newsstands – with their stacks of newspapers, displays of magazines and piles of objects such as candy and cigarettes – are also a condition of the home environment, where shelves teem with books, vinyl records, stereo receivers and VHS tapes.
Very early work, from the late 1970s, used Davey’s sisters and friends as subjects, as well as tightly cropped parts of the body. The body then disappears, only to reappear as the artist’s presence in video work. Most importantly, the body becomes grounded in voice. Davey paces her apartment relentlessly, reciting long narratives from prepared scripts. Previously depicted through the fragmentary aspect of the photograph and its condition of stillness, imagery is now put into motion through video. Writing and image-making coalesce through speaking, the viewer swept along by the author’s visual and literary peregrinations. Fragments of stories interweave, and images of images appear and disappear, sometimes maintaining an enigmatic relation to the narrated accounts. The camera – video and still – functions as a device of focus and concentration; the framing, movement and restlessness of the work reflecting states of being and consciousness.
In 2007, another shift in Davey’s work occurred in the mailed-photographs series. The artist folded, taped and mailed her photographs to various recipients, collected them back and exhibited them in grids. Her use of the postal service is at odds with a period heavily invested in email. The traces of interaction that occur with mail – the torn squares of tape, smudges of postal ink and slight soiling of creases – highlight, however, how divorced communication in the digital age has become from physical human contact. The photographs’ materiality was emphasized through their display: they were not framed or glazed, but pinned to the wall. The works underscored a key condition of the photographic medium: its “objectness” and hence fragility and vulnerability.
More recent human and animal portraits also reflect this state. Produced as gelatin silver prints, the photographs are grounded in what are now termed “historical processes.” Gelatin silver and inkjet prints are radically different, however. The former is constituted through the texture of paper and the actions of light and chemicals on silver compounds, while the latter is an applied-ink process. As a result, the gelatin silver portraits take on a different sensibility and substantiality. Ultimately, to my eye, Davey’s choice of medium accords with her open presentation of the subject. Both mutually accentuate physical presence. As still images, the works hold the viewer in a place of visual pleasure and convey a deep appreciation of the photographic medium.
The human portraits are also infused with a sense of nostalgia: of an older woman looking back at younger men’s bodies, of a love of a mother for her son, of delight at looking through the photographic lens and expressing not just the desire of the photographer, but also that of the subject. Finally, there is a joy in the image as an entity with its own life, an object of contemplation and appreciation, existing with the capacity to gather stories around it, now and in the future.
Moyra Davey: The Faithful is on view at the National Gallery of Canada from October 1, 2020 to January 3, 2021. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.