|In recent years Karen Davies, though trained as a sculptor, has increasingly devoted herself to printmaking and drawing that have formed an equally vital part of her practice. Bringing three-dimensionality from sculpture, Davies’ recent etchings exploit the ability of the medium to uncover yet also conceal. Rendered in a medium that has been used since the 16th century, to borrow a sense of a different time and place, her subjects are rooted in metamorphosis, narrative and fairytale, in a time out of time. Davies exploits the medium of choice for the voice of dissent, alterity, and opposition, her use of fairytale allowing for irony and self-consciousness, for alibis and alter egos.|
In recent years Karen Davies, though trained as a sculptor, has increasingly devoted herself to printmaking and drawing that have formed an equally vital part of her practice. Bringing three-dimensionality from sculpture, Davies’ recent etchings exploit the ability of the medium to uncover yet also conceal. Rendered in a medium that has been used since the 16th century, to borrow a sense of a different time and place, her subjects are rooted in metamorphosis, narrative and fairytale, in a time out of time. Davies exploits the medium of choice for the voice of dissent, alterity, and opposition, her use of fairytale allowing for irony and self-consciousness, for alibis and alter egos.
Metamorphosis, narrative, fairytale and other worlds are important elements in Davies’ practice. Fairytale realms are fertile grounds for the exploitation of the space of representation to explore ideas of person and personhood. Fairytales often speak through animals to explore human motivation and experience. As the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss commented, animals are “bons à penser” or good to think with. Davies’ work is grounded in this tradition.
Ovid’s poem Metamorphoses is the founding text of the metamorphic tradition. For Ovid, “All things are always changing.” During times of cultural change, such metamorphic narratives come to the fore. As Marina Warner argues, they “often arose in spaces (geographical and mental) that were crossroads, cross-cultural zones … .” Davies’ work exists at just such a point of interchange. Her works take much from Ovid’s often-perverse comedy, or the presentation of metamorphosis as an expression of intense passion, at moments of crisis.
Metamorphosis is a dynamic principle of creation, of generation and evolution, of growth and decay, but also threatens personal identity if one is subject to a continual process of transformation. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, metamorphosis, according to Warner, has marked out “heterodoxy, instability, perversity, unseemliness, monstrosity,” and was used to distinguish good from evil. Dante’s vision for the damned in the Inferno was a continual loss of identity, souls tormented by change. Davies borrows elements from both traditions.
Birds are frequent subjects for Davies, who uses their ability to be infused with hopes and dreams, ethereal, morbid, and beautiful. The bird woman in Stupid Bird however, screams obscenities. Her words, scattered, across the surface suggesting inarticulate uncontained rage, or even perhaps that she has had the words put in her mouth. The use of etching and the scale of production echo book illustration of cautionary tales, lending a timeless quality to the work. The image itself was based on a governmental health warning poster designed to discourage women from binge drinking in the city, or “get drunk, get disorderly, get arrested.” Davies uses metamorphic traditions to discuss the presentation of women in this context as the perpetrators of transgression. References include Ovid’s crow, used as an example of indiscretion. The employment of metamorphosis in Stupid Bird also recalls the sirens of Greek mythology. These bird women were seductresses, enchanting sailors with their call to their death on the rocks. The transgression of the bird woman in Davies’ work is the challenge her behavior presents to the gender role and screaming almost unreadable rage.
Transgression is writ large in another of Davies’ works You’re Just Critter’s Eyes (2006), a large-scale version of a very small etching, three by two inches, reproduced to billboard scale. The billboard depicts the eyes of a critter, an unidentifiable creature. This time, Davies uses metamorphosis to anthropomorphize a specific but undisclosed incident, addressing criticism with apparent concealment and characteristic Ovidian humor.
Davies further explores metamorphosis in a recent series of drawings, 35 British Birds (2008). Here, the ancient concept is interrupted by scientific reason. In the 18th century, Carl Linnaeus’ system for naming, ranking and classifying organisms delineated rules of categorization of the natural world. Davies’ anthropomorphized birds with their various appendages are presented in pseudoscientific manner, central on the picture plane echoing Linnaeus’ detailed specimen drawings. Davies’ drawings capture the curiosity and wonderment of early attempts at classification, but ultimately use metamorphosis to problematize taxonomies.
The series Some Birds (2009) employs both swiftly executed drawing and the rudimentary and direct stamp print. The series imagines the behavior of birds at the end of the world. In the metamorphic tradition, the works are “imagining alternatives, mapping possibilities, exciting hope.” Some Birds allows Darwin’s theory of evolution to provide the counterpoint. Davies attributes the birds with human responses to the survival threat: fleeing, hiding, adapting, procreation, and maintaining hope. As Warner has argued, one of the things we want from stories, it seems, is orientation, with regard to the powers that we imagine govern our destinies. Metamorphosis can be seen as a kind of truth telling; it can promise us change too.
Parallel to using various texts as a stimulus for her work, Davies developed her own in the publication Egg Girl in 2006. The opening lines of Egg Girl are taken directly from the Brothers Grimm version of Snow White. The Brothers Grimm patched and retold existing stories and Davies, borrowing from them, follows the same storytelling tradition. Egg Girl is a dark psychological fairytale about the torment of a girl trapped inside an egg, who “walked a tightrope along the line of shadow.” There are various references at play in the work. The egg is used variously as a symbol of fragility and of fertility. The egg is also central to the classical tale of Leda and the Swan. Zeus, as a swan, mates with Leda, a human woman, who hatches two eggs, one of which in some versions is Helen of Troy, a “beauty triumphant in earthly paradise.” The transgressive story of Leda has literally been hacked out of the history of art. Versions of the tale by Michelangelo and Leonardo have long since disappeared. The female character in Davies’ tale is similarly cast in an ambiguous, tragic role.
Davies’ most recent practice has included drawings of comets that explore the natural world and mythology. Before the telescope, comets were considered bad omens, appearing as if from nowhere before vanishing into the darkness, prompting apocalyptic associations in myth. The drawings evoke history, memory, and eternal incompletion. Once again, Davies’ pseudoscientific methods gently mock our attempts to understand the universe.
To conclude, Davies operates in the zone of interchange, using fairytale, narrative and the metamorphic tradition, highlighting our psychological struggles with a characteristic humor to explore and provide an opposition to contemporary value systems. Her pseudoscientific presentation questions our classification systems and cautions against classificatory attempts to control our world.