Jack Mottram, 'Putting Herself on a Pedestal' (The Herald, 12/09/2009)
Four years ago, Kate Davis mounted a show at Sorcha Dallas called Participant. It featured drawings and screenprints of bottles, glasses and cutlery striking oddly human poses, each packed with art-historical allusions, but the piece that stood out was a big plinth, painted a slightly queasy, fleshy pink. There wasn’t much room for it in such a small gallery, so visitors had to make up their minds whether to edge around it, and squint at the other works from too close a vantage point, or clamber on top of it to get a proper look. Whichever course they took, Davis had made certain that they’d follow the implied instruction in her show title.
Now, the plinth is back, transformed, and Davis has titled her collection of new works Outsider.
The structure has been split in two - one half for each gallery space - upturned and fitted with a glass front, turning it into a scruffy version of a museum display cabinet. It’s not pink any more, but traces of its former colour can be seen through scuffs in its surface, now black. Another trace of its former purpose remains, as the upright cabinets have been placed close-up against the gallery doors, but this time the platform is a barrier, casting the visitor as the outsider of the title. Despite the stand-offishness of its new form, the ex-plinth is a highly personal work: sandwiched behind the glass are neat stacks and scruffy heaps of Davis’s belongings. There are old blankets and sleeping bags, tights and sunglasses, compilation CDs and books. Lots of books, by Kafka, Woolf, Hughes and Plath, and - lest viewers take this library as a series of clues - a guide to gluten-free cooking.
The drawings are in what Davis, a consummate draughtswoman, has made her trademark style - they are nigh-on photorealistic, dense with finicky detail, pristine and precise. Each one contains reproductions of work by another artist, Franz Gertsch, known, too, for photorealism. Gertsch liked to cast himself as without responsibility for his work, making large-scale reproductions of chance moments caught with a point-and-shoot camera. Davis has a bit of a problem with this tactic, it seems. In the first of her drawings, a Gertsch is reproduced, trapped under the wheel of a car, as a trainer- clad foot scuffs gravel over it. In the rest, Gertsch’s pieces are submerged in scenes of Davis’s own devising, the boundaries between original and copy blurred. In one, a magazine is being read, while the reader tucks in to scrambled eggs on toast, in the next a Gertsch scene is glimpsed in water pooled in a kitchen sink, a bottle of pills and some loo roll beside it on the counter. Overlaid on these mergers of Davis’s everyday life and Gertsch’s impersonal practice is a line which reads, “I want everything I make to reflect my whole life”.
That quote is borrowed from the choreographer Yvonne Rainer, so for all that it might be a statement of intent on Davis’s part, she, an outsider like her audience, has taken it from someone else. The items inside the former plinth are, for the most part, impersonal, the kind of stuff everyone has piled up in an unused cupboard, and the glass frontage hints that, however much we might like to, we cannot enter into the life of another by examining the artefacts that surround them.
Davis is in her own drawings, but never fully - we glimpse a hand here, a foot there. As she strives to reconcile herself to the newly personal tack her work is taking, she has stepped outside herself, using her own past work as an art-historical reference point, just like those quotations from Gertsch and Rainer.
Hidden away in the gallery office is a final piece, a print of a note Davis has made in the run up to the show. It provides a sort of meta-manifesto, in which a shopping list and a reminder to book a hospital appointment are presented on the same level as prompts to “finish edge of sink in pencil” and “trace out Gertsch head on knees to reflect my drawing”.
There’s another hidden work, too, in the form of the press release for the show. Rather than provide the usual gobbet of gnomic artspeak padded out with a potted biography, Davis shares a personal letter to her gallerist, in which she ponders the shift in her practice since the last show, and gives voice to her hope that she will be able successfully to communicate her ideas.
It’s a tentative piece of writing, and, for all the confidence of her drawings, this is a tentative show. Davis is showing us that she is an artist feeling her way towards a new mode of practice, uncertain as to how she should proceed. The engagement with art history that characterised her past work is here in spades - the absorption of feminist forebears’ work centred on their own lives and bodies, the calculated undermining of Gertsch’s almost macho posture of artist as machine - and the new-found self-examination is set within those self-imposed academic constraints. But, once the idea that Davis has cast artist and audience alike as outsiders, looking in on a life, and the making of work about that life, it begins to look like we’re all in this together, participants again, not outsiders at all. This give-and-take, the setting up of ideas in order to knock them down, and the exposure of the working out behind the work all add up to a self-portrait of an artist on the cusp of something new. I can’t wait to see what Davis does next.