artUS Special Issue 5/6 January - February 2005
Davis & Davis
by Alison Bing
Heather Marx Gallery, San Francisco CA October 14 - November 13, 2004
Of all the predicaments we've found ourselves in lately, few are as pretty as the dollhouse dramas Davis & Davis stage in their vibrantly colorful photographs. In Tweetie (2003), a red-haired doll throws up her tiny arms in distress as golden canaries escape their cage into a teal-blue sky. Birthday wishes seem destined to go terribly awry in Candle Boy (1995): the red candle on the head of this melancholy blue boy is unceremoniously snuffed out, and an ominous puddle of red wax stains the buttery yellow cake beneath his feet. Worm Girl (1998) features a porcelain figurine balancing precariously on a miniature chair in a red room, while below her a grinning white worm seems to be sneaking a peek up her blue dress. We can't help but feel sympathy for these dolls-after all the political campaign ads we were subjected to this fall, we know just what it's like to be set up to feel panicked, extinguished, exposed. But the dolls' fixed expressions and candy-colored surroundings are so patently artificial that eventually we have to laugh at ourselves for falling for such an obviously staged melodrama-and that laughter is strangely liberating.
In setting their dolls up for disaster, are Davis & Davis toying with our fears? Perhaps: but by playing them out in miniature, they are also putting them in proper perspective. Consider the photograph Rubberband Girl (2004), where a doll innocently playing with rubber bands has become entangled in them, as any child might do. If this photograph were of an actual child, though, it would be all over the Internet in no time. Imagine the accompanying news headlines: Killer office supplies on the loose! Outraged parents demand immediate product recall! This image seems to capture our current climate of cartoonish panic, where even the most far-fetched fears are treated with overblown concern, and children have become the hapless focus of our exaggerated anxieties.
Davis & Davis's photographs give us a much-needed opportunity to lighten up already, and recognize that some of our outsized concerns may actually be relatively minor dramas of our own invention. The absurdly imperiled children in their "Small Talents" and "Childish Things" series at Heather Marx Gallery could be distant cousins of Edward Gorey's Gashlycrumb Tinies (1962), who suffered alphabetically terrible fates with a ridiculous Victorian fatalism and high-buttoned clothing to match. Mass-media fixation on real-life tales of woe has taken some of the sting out of Gorey's gallows humor; instead of laughing at the Gashlycrumb Tinies, we're now laughing with them. Like Davis & Davis's dolls, we anticipate the worst with the fixed, wide-eyed stare and perverse fascination of video gamers contemplating imminent planetary annihilation on their PlayStations. So it is only appropriate that Davis & Davis's doll avatars enact our fears not in Gorey's gloomy grays, but in video-game hues of infrared, GMO-grass green, and radiation-ready ultraviolet. We used to be afraid of the dark, but now we know better: we fear things that glow in the dark, and Davis & Davis have given us plenty of them.
Davis & Davis's camera tricks are not so different from the tricks our modern minds can play on us: they've blown up our anxieties to much larger than actual size, exaggerated them with color and lighting for added effect, and zoomed in on minor details while losing focus on the bigger picture in the background. Sometimes this loss of focus is especially revealing. Take for example the diptych Kissers 1 & 2 (2002): in the left-hand panel, a bow-tied boy hangs his head dejectedly as a girl and a boy smooch, while in the right-hand panel a girl looks on as the two boys kiss. The vintage figurines are dressed in red, white, and blue, and they stand in front of a white picket fence that has been left ajar-details that seem to imply some political overtones. But Davis & Davis made this piece back in comparatively innocent days when kissing-boy figurines were not inevitably read as pawns in a looming culture war. As quaint as it seems now, Davis & Davis actually had to invent the drama we see here with the help of heightened color, long shadows, and a deliberately myopic focus. Today, merely acting on a child's impulse to make two dolls kiss seems like a daring political gesture. How did our perspective ever get so skewed?
Truth is we've been white-knuckling it for so long that we seem to be beginning to show some signs of wear, not unlike the figure with the chipped hands in Bungee Baby (1996). This doll is painted into his brown suit and stuck in a running stance-a pose all too familiar to any of the millions of Americans who've lost their jobs in these past few years of recession. The running man seems to have found a purpose here, as he stretches out his arms to catch a blonde baby who has been jettisoned from the window of a white house. But upon closer inspection, we notice that this man's distress is all for naught. Judging from the cord tied to its ankle, this baby has been purposely dangled out the window to play out some carefully plotted rescue fantasy. We're familiar with this dramatic device from so many action movies and inauguration speeches that the smirk of recognition it induces is instantaneous, and deliciously subversive too. For all their cheerful primary colors and comic book drama, there's more at work in Davis & Davis's photos than mere child's play. These images dare to suggest that perhaps some of our fears are false alarms, and serve as important cautionary tales against too much caution. The United States of Undue Panic that Davis & Davis have conjured up is a most amusing and illuminating place to visit, but you probably wouldn't want to live there.