JTF (just the facts): A total of 23 color photographs, framed in white and matted, and hung against white walls in the single room gallery space. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made between 2002 and 2013. The prints are available in two sizes: 11×14 (or reverse), in editions of 15, and 20×24 (or reverse), in editions of 10. There are 9 small prints are 14 large prints on display in the show. A monograph of this body of work was recently published by Kehrer Verlag (here). This is the artist’s first solo show in New York.
A second exhibit of Davis’ work, entitled Ask in Exchange, is being shown in the back gallery space. It includes 10 archival pigment prints, made between 2007 and 2009. These prints are also available in two sizes: 30×24 (or reverse) in editions of 6, and 40×30 (or reverse), in editions of 6. There are 7 small prints and 3 large prints on view. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Photographic self portraiture is a surprisingly tricky and elusive genre. Given the handiness of the subject (yourself), it’s a recurring favorite of young photographers who are still searching for and refining their artistic voices, often leading to obvious emulations of Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin, or perhaps Francesca Woodman. Even master photographers have found it hard to resist the urge to dabble in the creative persona management and performative play acting of self portraiture now and then. But while we can list dozens of superlative single image examples of self portraiture across the history of the medium, very few photographers have successfully created long term projects entirely out of the process of looking at themselves. That kind of extended, unvarnished personal examination cuts far too close for most of us.
As the title of this exhibit explains, Jen Davis has spent the past eleven years making self portraits, and this body of work has already cemented itself as a landmark in the genre; it’s one of the most unflinching, vulnerable, and complicated investigations of identity in recent photography. Part of its tremendous success lies in that she’s shown us something we haven’t seen before – the interior life of a young, overweight woman, and the struggles and pressures (both physical and emotional) that her size has placed on her life – and she’s done it with an unexpected honesty that can’t help but draws us in.
Like John Coplans’ portraits of his aging male body, Davis doesn’t shy away from her folds of skin. On the contrary, she forces us to see her body from clashing vantage points, interweaving society’s stereotypical view of beauty and her own critical and unforgiving eye. We see her perched on the edge of the tub trying to cover herself with a towel, sitting uncomfortably in a bathing suit at the beach (near bikini wearing friends), wrapped in loose bathrobes and nightgowns, and covered in water droplets from the shower. Each picture has an undercurrent of unease, a sense of being judged and being found unworthy, either by those around her or by herself. They display none of the self confidence found in Irving Penn’s portraits of the fleshy Alexandra Beller.
Given her weight, everyday scenes of eating take on a more layered, critical tone. Silent lunch on a ferry, seconds at dinner, ordering a burger at a fast food stand, they all have a disapproving “no wonder she’s overweight” resonance, placed their by our own misconceptions and prejudices about overweight people. Images of desire and sexuality have a similar sad twist, her ability to find love and intimacy a fantasy seemingly made impossible by her obesity. Again and again, she pictures herself alone, combing her hair, watering the houseplants, staring outward, mixing anxiety, shame, and emptiness.
Davis has a talent for the use of light, her well-crafted compositions often echoing classic Dutch painting, even down to the leftover still life orange peels on the kitchen counter. Rich backgrounds of green and blue frame her solitary moments, adding quiet grace to her interior battles, and shadows cross her frames, spotlighting her changing expressions and moods.
In the end, Davis pulls herself out of her downward emotional spiral, loses some of her weight, and starts to discover acceptance and love in herself and those around her; it’s a redemptive (and romantic) feel good ending. But it’s her harsher, more challenging pictures from the tough years that are the real keystones in this project, the ones that will likely stand the tests of time the best and consistently find their way into future portraiture survey shows. They succeed because they are honest, uncompromising, and open, in a sympathetic way that exposes the authentic emotional landscape of what it’s like to live with being overweight. For a first solo show in New York, it’s a remarkably mature and accomplished artistic statement.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The 11×14 prints from Eleven Years are $2000 each, while the 20×24 prints range from $2800 to $4500 each. The 30×24 prints from Ask in Exchange range between $2500 and $3200 each, while the 40×30 prints are $4000 each. Davis’ work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best/only option for those collectors interested in following up.