Saturday, January 13, 2007

Lauren Davies at Ampersand (SF)

Note: This exhibit closes on 2/11/07. The gallery has limited hours.

Lauren Davies’s childhood fascination with natural history museums plays out in her art, with weirdly wonderful results. Her latest project, entitled “Dominion,” is on view at Ampersand International Arts in San Francisco. Her point of departure for the show was a decrepit French schoolroom map of colonial Africa (detail at left).

In recent years, some of Davies's best work has been animal sculptures and dioramas. Elements of these can look realistic, but everything is fake. The animal sculptures are often incomplete, or in process, in ways that can be unnerving. The dioramas merge several aesthetic styles: traditional displays of natural history, Modernist abstractions, and Arte Povera’s use of abject materials and lack of finish. There’s a slightly demented air to the proceedings, with a comic edge that adds pressure instead of releasing it.

In this show, one of the dioramas is called “Petting Zoo Pongo” (photo at top, from the gallery website). While Pongo is the genus for orangutans, the paw in this piece is presumably a gorilla’s. It's a duplicate of a gorilla paw noted below. Perhaps Davies is referring to legendary gorilla-like creature called pongo, as in the B-movie White Pongo (1945).

The other diorama is “Ivory Products,” in which Ivory Soap is the stand-in for true ivory. The debossed product logo is partially visible in one section. Despite the pun with materials, the invocation of ivory, and the tattered display, give the work an elegiac quality. (Photo above.)

There is also a poignant aspect to “Glove,” a simulated gorilla paw that has been dropped casually on the floor, suggesting human negligence. (Photo above.)

One of the strangest works replicates what the zoo industry calls a chimpanzee “enrichment device.” (Photos above and below.) In this case it's a feeding device in the form of a high-rise termite mound. Chimps in the wild use twigs to probe the real mounds for termites, which they eat. In zoos, their probing gets them some mashed food. Next to her replicated mound, Davies displays a simulated tube, stuffed with simulated food, that is ready to be installed inside the fake mound. After pondering this work, you can go home and enjoy your own “enrichment devices.”

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