Arts & Culture

Exhibit reveals special in the mundane

5 min read

The photographs of Moyra Davey concentrate on the everyday, illuminate the timeless

The new — and, for now, last — exhibit at the Fogg Art Museum, “Long Life Cool White: Photographs by Moyra Davey,” offers a subtle distillation of the mundane into the profound.

The retrospective collection of 40 color and black-and-white shots is culled from the artist’s 20-year career and takes its name from a common fluorescent bulb. Like its title, the show includes images of mostly everyday things, taken largely in Davey’s homes over the past two decades.

Her pictures of newspapers, books, empty bottles, record albums, and dust caught in a dog’s paw or collecting under a bed give the viewer a sense of intimate, familiar domestic space, while simultaneously evoking the passage of time.

At the show’s Feb. 28 opening, the soft-spoken, diminutive New Yorker discussed her work with a small group of fellows of the Harvard University Art Museums in the Fogg’s Naumburg Room.

Helen Molesworth, the show’s curator and the museum’s Maisie K. and James R. Houghton Curator of Contemporary Art, asked why so many of her pictures include shots of dust.

The artist admitted the “annoying, yet profound substance” intrigued her.

“It’s an element that has always fascinated me,” she said. “It’s ever-present, something you can do battle with but it will never stop… [also] it’s a reminder of decay.”

The artist said the process of compiling works for the show, her first major museum exhibit, was an emotional one requiring her to reassess the past two decades of her life.

“You’re revisiting the past, you’re revisiting the person that you were. You’re having to face the things that you did right, but also the failures.”

Davey eschews the latest in digital technology, what she says can produce “not very interesting work.” Instead she uses a variety of cameras that range from a 35-millimeter to a tiny Minox Spy Camera. To keep the process close and maintain control over the final product, she develops almost all of her own film in a rented darkroom.

In addition to the gallery images, Davey, who is also a writer, contributed to the show’s catalog with her reflections on life, death, and the accidental nature of great photography. The catalog also includes the video transcript from her film “Fifty Minutes.”

The show, which is on the museum’s second floor, runs through June 30 and is the last major installation before the building is scheduled to close the same day for major renovations.

The exhibit, said its curator, indicates a move toward representing accomplished artists who may have been previously overlooked by the commercial mainstream.

“I wanted to take the opportunity to focus attention on an artist who has not garnered a certain kind of commercial success — I think wrongly so,” said Molesworth, of Davey and her work.

For Molesworth, the pictures represent a glimpse of the “domestic interior” of the artist and writer in a very “nonglamorous, non-Hollywood way.” They also reflect the 20th century avant-garde call to blend the category of art and life.

“One way to do that was to champion the everyday,” said Molesworth. “I think Moyra does this but she does so in the minor key. I am drawn to the subtlety and the quietness and the melancholy of these photographs.”

On the main wall before the entrance to the gallery, the largest piece in the show gazes out over the museum’s stately courtyard. One hundred close-ups of copper pennies, covered with coats of dust and grime, and in varying states of decay, meet the viewer head-on.

The work, aptly titled “Copperheads,” was created between 1990 and 1992 and represented for Davey — at the time a recent graduate — the thing most urgent to her.

“I didn’t have any [money],” said Davey, who turned the camera into a kind of microscope to examine the currency’s surface in fine detail. Additionally, she said, the shots explore the psychoanalytical life around money.

“These macro close-ups reveal all of this dirt and dust,” she said, “that are a perfect encapsulation of the scatological nature of money.”

In conjunction with the show, the M. Victor Leventritt Symposium ‘Modern/Age’ will be held on April 5 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum Lecture Hall. The daylong event convenes a group of scholars who will address the concept of the outmoded, another underlying theme of Davey’s exhibit. Davey’s film work is also included in a current show at Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. Her film ‘Fifty Minutes’ is part of a group of video, sound, and slide projects of five New York-based artists titled ‘Two or Three Things I Know About Her,’ also curated by Helen Molesworth, which runs through April 6.

The Fogg Art Museum and the Busch-Reisinger Museum, 32 Quincy St., will close for renovations on June 30. For more information, please check the Harvard University Art Museums’ Web site: