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Deirdre Hanna

Michael Davey at Mercer Union, Toronto, September 17 - October 1.

C Magazine # 8, Winter 1985
[ 1.080 words ]


Once its novelty passes, glib, one-dimensional art becomes every bit as vapid as the worst of nineteenth century academic salon painting. Hence pure form and pure concept have their places in the annals of art history, but a steady diet of either becomes tedious. Witness the return to a 'new' figurative style, no longer so new. Similarly, representation in itself can wear a bit thin: the medium need not be the message, but it may certainly support it. For process and imagery — form and content — where reconciled, create layers of interpretation of gratifying richness.

Such is the case with the recent installation of sculpture by Michael Davey at Mercer Union. Davey's works are multi-faceted, dealing with formal, contextual, historical and contemporary issues. The juxtaposition of apparent opposites and their occasional reconciliation forms a central motif; seeming contradictions provide the basis for a visual discourse or dialectic which links the pieces through a subtext.

The contradictions begin with materials. Although the use of mixed media is not in itself remarkable, Davey's application of it is. Cast bronze and lead, welded iron rods, milled wooden planks and plaster are used to underline the divergent aesthetic sensibilities to which the sculptor must reconcile himself. A central fragment of (plaster) wall acts as the nucleus of the installation; around it he has arranged a dozen sculptural pieces. Each consists, at least in part, of a cast metal portion, some in combination with iron rod constructions. Even where a cast bronze piece is presented alone on a base, the base serves to link the sculpture to the wall. While the modelled segments form the germ of the exhibit, the framework within which they are presented remains a fundamental element.

Thus one sculpture consists of a cast bronze, fecal fasces supported by a conical structure that forms a pentagon at its base. A two-dimensional Mesopotamian ziggurat stands at the foot. The piece is formally satisfying, the three parts linked by the recurrence of the conical motif. It is also densely packed with allusions: the fasces to the Roman Lietors, the revolutionary French who adopted their emblem as a symbol of Liberty, and to Mussolini, who used this same symbol to name his Fascist party. The pentagon to the American military, and its placement over the ziggurat to American intervention in and domination of the Middle East and Latin America. On broader terms, this work questions the implications of imperial claims of liberation. The very form the sculpture takes signifies the inherent conflict alluded to overall, with the visceral, almost baroque fasces in stark contrast to the pentagonal cone. Nevertheless the union of the parts is not seen exclusively in terms of conflict, but rather takes on sexual overtones at the point of juncture where the iron rods penetrate the cast bronze at the residual cup left from the casting process.

Davey's bronzes are typically subjective works, indebted to Henry Moore in that Davey discovers archetypal forms through the process of working with his materials, forms which 'express similar ideas at widely different places and periods of time', to use Moore's words. Thus a piece based on a Peruvian potato sculpture cum Willendorf Venus is mounted above a postmodern obelisk, and, in another piece, a fish (Christ) spews forth (Jonah) a two sided male / female figure (inverse Janus) while supported by a Laöcoönian lattice.

In some cases Davey has worked from photomontage, incorporating newsmagazine imagery with more traditional artistic motifs. A Palestinian gunwoman, for example, grows from an enormous hand that takes the place of another figure. A missile at the rear stabilizes this totemic group, which is further held together by a network of serpentine forms.In profile, the piece resembles the bold graphics of Chinese revolutionary posters. Another casting is dominated by a hammer and sickle, which both grow from and are supported by a wasp-wasted, pistol-bearing archer who evokes Mycenaean vase figures and seventeenth century Nigerian bronze representations of armed Portuguese soldiers. More power, more empires. The pistol is pointed at an adjacent tree-of-life group, a satellite arrangement that recalls giant Baga headdresses and Inuit masks, made up of elements as diverse as the ground plan of an Egyptian tomb, a West African head, and a South American lizard. An exhaustive list of Davey's resources reads like a catalogue.

Indeed in this body of work Davey has catalogued the dream and lie of civilization: 'civilization' as a synthesis of human achievement and mistake, from the so-called primitive through the present. Hence Pre-Columbian and Oceanic artifacts appear alongside westernized popular culture and icons of some of the most sophisticated technological products. And so a crucible, flamed by a serpent, produces a cornucopian cyclone which emits a lizard, a U-boat, and a missile.

Davey has fun with this conflation of points of reference. One pair of sculptures might have been used to illustrate Chariots of the Gods: a freestanding, phallic vagina stands next to Shiva figure surrounded by a mandorla-like aura. Davey based the genital piece on an Inca model for a canal system, now housed in Cuzco. Does it also represent a purported landing strip for extra-terrestrial ancestors; or rather does it demonstrate how we make ourselves as gods through technology?

One pair in particular hails our collective technological achievement: three nuclear plants in cast metal — all modelled on magazine photographs, and bearing an uncanny resemblance to George Lucas film sets — are grouped with a cast bronze realization of a Leonardoesque flying machine. They are suspended in iron rod facsimiles of fuselage. I will lay before your Lordship (thus wrote Leonardo to his future patroon, Ludovico Sforza) my secret inventions (instruments of war), and then offer to carry them into execution at your pleasure . . . also in painting I can do as well as any man.

And isn't the implementation of a Deathstar in space a wondrous achievement? Davey's sculpture indicts the viewer who stands amidst the complex network of symbols, fragments of civilization that orbit on bits of fuselage around a central wall-like satellite. Star Wars. Brought to you by Lucas, Reagan, and even Leonardo. 'Death and destruction for fun and profit'. Contradictions. More contradictions.

C Magazine # 8, Winter 1985

Text: © Deirdre Hanna. All rights reserved.

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