Artweek December, 1999

Davis & Davis at Cypress College

by Rick Gilbert

Husband and wife photographers Denise and Scott Davis bring an ironic and campy sense of humor to Cypress College Gallery with their series of Cibachrome prints entitled Modern Romance. In their words, this series "investigates such issues as identity, dependence, power and trust as they impact the contemporary relationship between the sexes." Acting as models, set and costume designers as well as camera persons, the Davis team stages mock glamour shots that borrow vocabulary from pulp magazines, soap operas and commercial photography, to examine the underside of prevailing notions of romantic love, domestic harmony and matrimonial bliss.

Like a new wave Ozzie and Harriet by way of Gilbert and George, the Davises place themselves in carefully orchestrated pastiches of hackneyed romantic situations to create amusingly melodramatic narratives superficially reminiscent of sleazy paperback covers. These narratives suggest moments of interpersonal crisis, the idea of marriage as a trap, or of love as a state of mutual delusion. Most of these scenes of alienated affections play off an unnamed tension stemming from the underlying savagery on which the egos of their battling lovers feed.

In Fallout, a woman in a red miniskirt is seen exiting her domicile, trailing , clothing and a wedding photo spilled from her hastily packed valise. In Plush, a woman vacuums a suburban living room, oblivious to the striped pajama-wearing man lying on the carpet whose legs are outlined by powdered sugar, as well as to the picture hanging over the fireplace which shows a woman drinking a cup of coffee at a table covered with the remains of a shattered tea service.

Sexual innuendo is the dominant tone in such works as Mature Themes, with its scantily clad couple sipping bloodred cocktails; Sympathetic Magic, in which a man sleeps at the foot of a tree while a woman in a frilly negligee skulks behind it holding a straw fetish figure; and Insomnia, a tribute to the eroticism of vampirism. Images such as Evidence, in which the lipstick on a man's shirt collar discovered by his spouse has been surreptitiously applied by him; and Public Display of Affection, in which the fingernail scratches marking a woman's back are self-inflicted, allude to deceit of both the self and others.

Further gradations of the romantic barometer are illustrated by Love, Honor, Cherish, Obey and If a Man/Woman Answers, which deal with insincerity and duplicity, while And I Alone Survived and I Saw Red concern, respectively, a suicide pact and a crime of passion in the making. Death-Defying Act, featuring a tightrope held taut between the teeth of a man and a woman while parasol-toting mantises traverse it, veers towards comic surrealism.

The Davises' wry manipulations of gesture, pose and expression hold up to the light many of the cornier traditional composition techniques in portraiture and slice-of-life art and poke fun at the seriousness with which mortals confront their predicaments like characters in television commercials overwrought about "the heartbreak of psoriasis."

Ultimately, this work hovers between good-natured mockery of idealized suburban households fashioned after the kinds of wholesome lifestyles depicted in ladies' home journals, and the vicious, darker side of human nature as pictured in popular crime novels and other kinds of lowbrow fiction. We laugh at all this boudoir noir, but somewhat uncomfortably, because of its unpleasant, implicit truths.

Davis & Davis-Modern Romance closed November 9 at Cypress College Fine Arts Gallery.

Rick Gilbert is a freelance writer based in San Marino.