Review: Gerwyn Davies Fur
Coinciding with the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras festival, Gerwyn Davies’ Fur at the Australian Centre for Photography (ACP) relishes in kitsch and camp. The exhibition brings together photographic works from the artist’s series Beast (2013), Subtropics (2016), Bel Air (2017), Heatwave (2017) and Idol (2017) for the Davies’s debut solo exhibition in New South Wales.
For those unfamiliar with artist’s idiosyncratic oeuvre, Davies combines costume-making, set design and photography to create “hyper real dreamscapes of our childhood,” as the single piece of wall text so eloquently explains. And although the walls of ACP are filled with fifteen bold photographs of spectacular creatures in aesthetically striking locations, Davies’ work is visually repetitive. The arrangement of each scene largely consists of a lone figure positioned centre frame within a relatable locale captured with trademark clinical crispness and optical clarity. These compositional elements are consistent within the aforementioned series, but his visual quality remains seemingly unchanged from 2013 to the present.
By donning transformative suits of “enchanting shields and protective camouflage” and placing whimsical, furry beasts in mundane locations, Davies’ photographic style renders the moments with an uncanny valley-like air of uncomfortable familiarity. Fur is designed as an exhibition which positions Davies’ artistic output as nostalgia-occupying scenes of material familiarity; a presentation of familiar sights and senses encouraging the audience to look misty eyed at an “idealistic” past, to borrow from the didactics again. I believe this does a disservice to Davies and his work, because personally the most rewarding aspect of these stunning photographs is the symbiotic relationship formed between sensory remembrance and the transformative nature of our imagination, only revealed once the familiarity of suburban Australiana is stripped away.
The sharpness and clarity of each image encourages the viewer to explore the intricacies of the artists’ inventive costumes. This inventiveness is often revealing an underlying comedy, found most cheekily in the work recreating a high-vis clad tradie on smoko with the costume made out of traffic cones (Construction, 2017). As the human concept of play is intrinsic in Davies’ creative process, imaginative use of familiar objects often breeds curiosity. You see a suit of safety cones and think: ‘Hey, that looks fun, I should try that!” which in turn makes you appreciate the artist’s mastery of his craft when the logistics of such a costume are realistically questioned. These readymade creatures render the artist anonymous, encouraging us to buy into the sense of awe and wonder which often accompany nostalgia, a sentimental feeling a number of these works hinge themselves upon.
For those fond of the famous tourist gimmickry of the ‘Big Things’ which litter Australian interstate highways, Prawn, 2017, is one of the more successful works in the exhibition. The scene depicts a visitor standing in amazement of The Big Prawn, the human figure donning prawn garb assembled from orange construction paper. The image flirts with imagination and familiarity. Davies’ frock of paper is a fully realised homemade project, made in the admiration borne from nostalgia of a humble trip to an off-beat destination. While you may not have specific memories of the experience, the immediate recognisability of the scene fuels the Australiana-infused dreamlike state captured in Davies’ photograph and prods us to revisit ‘the good ol’ days’ and take a moment to slow down. Prawn is a comforting image of imaginative memory, in which your recollection is distorted not by your own failure to remember, but by the uncomfortable clarity that it is presented back to you.
Nevertheless, the works presented in Fur are not all schmaltzy imagery of meat pies and sausage rolls, as Davies also has a penchant for lampooning Americana and popular culture, where Rose, 2017 is another immediately alluring artwork. Rooted in perhaps the most famous scene of American Beauty, the artist adopts the pose of the fantasised and over-sexualised teenage infatuation Angela, played by Mena Suvari. On one hand, because we can all phantom feel a suit of tinsel, the sensual image appeals to our base desire to be surrounded by comforting physicality. Conversely, by covering his body in a suit of glimmering silver tinsel, Davies’ work become reflexive, uncomfortably forcing the viewer to embody the creepy psyche of – eek – Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham. Rose evokes a primal desire of hedonistic lust resulting from the easily identified movie scene the artist in imitating, at least until you notice Gerwyn’s osseous feet and toes.
Gerwyn Davies’ Fur is unashamedly a contemporary exhibition that explores how we can find stability in an increasingly troublesome world yet included is one work which encourages us to reassess the lessons explored in our past. Narcissus (2017) is a rendition of the mythological Greek hunter populated by the furriest of all costumes reaching into a reflective pool. Given the ancient myth is a warning on image, Davies comically twists the psychology to focus on touch in a winking moment to one’s desire for tactile gratification. The mise en scène is purposefully bland and unobtrusive: a patch of cloudless blue sky meeting a horizon of a seemingly freshly mowed backyard. The anonymity of the figure allows the audience to project ourselves into the scene wherein we are incapacitated of our ability to feel – both physically and emotionally – anything beyond ourselves.
Gerwyn Davies’ Fur is a curious exhibition filled with imaginative beasts of the fluff, shag and sheen of transmuted everyday materials captured in the juncture of performance by the impersonal eye of the camera. Some may find the work compositionally homogenous, yet focus is not Gerwyn Davies (or specifically: his appendages), but rather the anonymity created which beckons the viewer to indulge themselves in tactile stimulation borne from familiarity of place, time, and playfully making a costume out of paper.
Con Gerakaris is an arts administrator and independent early career curator from Sydney currently working at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.
Gerwyn Davies’ Fur is on exhibition at Gerwyn Davies from 15 February – 24 March 2018.
Author’s note: all quoted text taken from exhibition wall text.