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Looking at the Overlooked

Photographer Moyra Davey's first solo show debuts at the Fogg

By Victoria D. Sung, Crimson Staff Writer

On a rainy afternoon at the Fogg, throngs of college students stand huddled together, examining the dust that had gathered under Moyra Davey’s bed.

In “Long Life Cool White: Photographs by Moyra Davey,” on display at the Fogg Art Museum until June 30, New York City photographer Davey focuses her lens on everyday objects. These range from the humble—stacks of books and records, for example—to mundane substances such as dust.

“Dust is something as an element that has always fascinated me,” Davey says. “It’s ever-producing. It’s this thing that you can do battle with forever, but it’ll never stop. Someone once said that dust was like a marker of time. The accumulation of dust, I think, is a memento mori, a reminder of decay.”

The passage of time is a resounding theme in Davey’s work that manifests itself not only in each individual photograph—be it through the time it takes to amass a record collection, or to consume a bottle of liquor—but also in “Long Life Cool White” as an exhibit.

Organized by Helen Molesworth, the first Houghton Curator of Contemporary Art, the retrospective examines the past 20 years of Davey’s career as a photographer. In the same way that Davey’s camera contemplates objects that are often overlooked, Molesworth sheds light on a lesser-known artist of our time with “Long Life Cool White,” the first major survey and museum exhibition of Davey’s work.

“Moyra’s an artist I feel has not gotten fair notice or the commercial success I think she deserves, in part because her work is so modest in scale and subject matter,” Molesworth says.

As part of a larger initiative to bring more contemporary art to the Harvard art museums, Molesworth chose to display Davey’s work because she believes it also lends itself well to a learning environment. “I feel like students can have many different conversations about Moyra’s work,” she says. “They can discuss the work in the framework of photography, the tradition of still life, intellectual history, and I also think there’s a whole aspect of the work about obsolescence, whether it’s analog technology, film, camera, or even books.”

Davey and Molesworth have a long, personal relationship dating to Molesworth’s college days. In 1988, Davey had Molesworth as a student in a history of photography class at the University of California at San Diego. These days, it’s Molesworth who critiques Davey’s work as the curator of Davey’s first exhibit.

The collaboration between the artist and curator started several years ago, when Molesworth still served as the chief curator of exhibitions at The Ohio State University’s Wexner Center for the Arts. She brought the project of celebrating Davey’s work to Cambridge when she became Harvard’s first full curator of contemporary art in February 2007.

“Long Life Cool White” is one of the first shows Molesworth has organized at Harvard, along with “Two or Three Things I Know About Her” at the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts, featuring Davey’s video “Fifty Minutes.”

That her first exhibition is a retrospective, rather than a showcase for her new work, reflects Davey’s evolving approach to art and production.

“I wanted to stop making as many photographs and kind of cycle back to the boxes, the ones I’ve already made, and bring those out again,” Davey says. “As an artist, you always have that drive to make things, but there’s something scary I find about constantly producing, producing, producing.”

When not producing new photographs, Davey reads and writes voraciously, and these passions are also evident in her artwork. “For a lot of the pictures, I was interested in the way text functions, that you can read all of the notes, cereal boxes, and papers,” she says. In a photograph of her refrigerator, which is absent from the exhibit but is included in the exhibition catalogue, the appliance bears a magazine pullout entitled, “Do I Dare to Eat a Strawberry?” A jar of Colon Cleanse sits on top of the fridge next to a box of Cheerios.

Calling herself a “technophobe,” Davey says she is old-fashioned in an era when digital photography and manipulation runs rampant. “Photography has changed so much away from that kind of photography of the street, where you wait for something to happen, and has been eclipsed by the new digital technologies,” she says.

Instead, Davey prefers to practice a more traditional form of photography. “I like to work with window light, so I’m really tuned to the light and the space I live in. I know that at certain times of the day light will come in and illuminate a corner or space.”

“Long Life Cool White” offers a subtle yet perceptible sense of Davey’s ongoing transformation as an artist. Though she still focuses on the small, intimate objects lying around her house, “There has been a move from a certain kind of conceptual rigor to a certain kind of poetics,” says Molesworth. “[Davey’s] earliest work, the ‘Copperheads,’ uses the camera to look very closely at something that’s traditionally not seen in a very rigorous way through the use of image and grid, while her most recent work is much more poetic, loose, and playful.”

“It’s not really a conscious decision, but clearly it’s a preoccupation because those are the images I end up choosing,” Davey says of time’s role in her work.

But while its presence may be unintentional, time plays a prominent role in Davey’s new show, whether in the photographs themselves or in the process of putting together the retrospective. “It was unbelievably emotional to reach back,” she says. “You’re revisiting the past, the person who you were, and you’re having to face the things you did right, but also all of the failures.”

—Staff writer Victoria D. Sung can be reached at vsung@fas.harvard.edu.

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