Thinking about Davida Nemeroff in light of two videos seen at the Guggenheim Gallery

(top) Davida Nemeroff, Sun Dog (jake), 16×21″, inkjet print, 2010
(lower) Davida Nemeroff, still from Jacuzzi Time, digital video, 2010
both from Gallery TPW

I wonder whether Davida Nemeroff sees the animals in her photographs as substitutes, or rather, as surrogates and signifiers for… well – what, really? Not herself – her work does not seem involved in self portraiture – rather I think her work explores the idea of friends, and mentors, homely things. When I have talked with Nemeroff about the figures in her work, and about the women with whom she often collaborates, she usually describes these to me in superlative – if not heroic – terms. I recognize and understand this because I speak the same way about artists and friends whom I admire.

For more than a year Nemeroff spent her time at the Los Angeles Zoo photographing apes and other not-any-longer-wild animals, she also photographed the weathered concrete lion sculptures that dot the landscape of the park, and these sculptures are free, if only in that nothing but their material stops them from moving. This makes a nice counterpoint to the trapped animals, who cannot be free, not due to the material of their beings, but due to their use as material by us. The photographs that resulted from this project present animals in quite a straightforward manner, there is no coy implied narrative, simply what the animals can muster for themselves, and what a viewer can discern without imposing themselves too much into the scene.

These qualities of deadpan consideration mingled with admiration are present in two videos that Nemeroff shows in a group exhibition at the Guggenheim Gallery at Chapman University. (The images above are taken from her 2011 exhibition California at Toronto’s Gallery TPW, yet they are representative of Jacuzzi Time and Tell Me Your Name, Jake, (Ode to Mira), the two videos at the Guggenheim.

Davida told me some months ago of the young woman, the girl, in Jacuzzi Time. She met her on a visit to a friend’s family home and they shared a Jacuzzi in the cold afternoon. This young woman, Davida said, was beautiful and confident and aware of her self-consciousness in the way that a teenager is aware of her gawkiness and moves beautifully with that knowledge; grace is built on the awareness of one’s limitations. The camera captures wwith quiet regard the sweet beauty of this yet-to-be woman’s youth. Similarly, Tell Me Your Name, Jake (Ode to Mira) is titled for friend and artist Mira Dancy, whose vibrancy and importance to Nemeroff derives from a long acquaintance and mutual support and respect.

There are two parts to the brief Tell Me Your Name, Jake: in one the artist’s shadow falls across the face of her subject as the dog faces her, then glances sidelong, with almond-shaped eyes that display intelligence and amiable cunning. The animal is sharp, happy, and eager – and it toys with the photographer and barks a bit. In the second part Jake strains at his (?) leash, again woofing and eager, finally he escapes the camera, loping off to one side.

I can imagine the photographer gesturing from behind her camera to incite such canine cuteness. Then I think again of friends and of mentors and of belief in both, and I think that the kind of feminism that is being practiced in the work of this wholy Feminist artist is relational, is based on understanding and experience and on friendship.

Neither the young woman, nor the dog have anything in these videos beyond the artist’s belief in their excellence. The chipper little beagle-shaped dog, and the lovely, smart young woman are just what they are, and yet they seem to glow under the attention of the camera and of the artist. Leah Sandals, in Canada’s National Post, found in Nemeroff’s work, “a tension between wanting to savour life’s simpler pleasures and not wanting to seem too enthusiastic about it.” I would suggest that too much enthusiasm draws attention to itself and away from the thing being admired. In contrast, this work quietly shows what is amazing yet credible about people.

Lick It Into Shape – Friending the Ephemeral will be on view at the Guggenheim Gallery at Chapman University through September 20. Artists in the exhibition include: Brandon Andrew, Young Chung, Public Fiction, Samara Golden, Alex Jasch, Cyril Kuhn, Davida Nemeroff and Paul Pescador.

Lick It Into Shape is the inaugural exhibition at this university gallery for curator Marcus Herse, and for the next year at the Guggenheim he will share with the students, and with us, his deep knowledge of local art communities and also his interest in the work of international artists. Carpooling may become fashionable.

Davida Nemeroff and Samara Golden will present Modern Painters, opening at Various Small Fires on September 9.

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