Regarding Michelle's Books Exhibition

Catherine Sullivan, Curator, CSU, Chico Janet Turner Print Museum
January 2008

Michelle Davis, in her recent body of work, continues to explore a conceptual nature of vision and its expression in subject. Books are her interest in both their form and inherent contents. She does not allow you to actually use these books, but actually separates you from the image by the resin encasement. This forensic experience of preservation and no direct accessibility creates a tension filled metaphor—are they passed experience, do they still have knowledge to give, or are they merely an artifact? This tension of expectation in consideration of internal contents versus the minimal clue by titles is the intersection of vision and intent. The photographs are a haunting memory of someone who went to used bookstores; the graveyard of the formerly used and the reason books rest there.

While it is clear by the groupings of titles what interests her, she has retained the randomness, the necessity of search and the unexpected sense of discovery of her artistic experience. We, as she, become the voyeurs of unknown personal taste, education and need for knowledge. We only get the titles; others got the intimate experience in reading. The surreptitious deception in apparent randomness is carefully composed and directed—as much as there is to see, her borders limit our vision. Her relationship with medium is her message; she has objectified experience in the manner of still life paintings; we see the way she wants us to see.

Interesting in this rather small selection is the variety of themes that emerge. Some photographs, such as “Dream Lover” use color to direct the experience of her vision, composition and intent. The man’s blue sleeve is referenced in the woman’s blue dress to the blue cover sleeve of “Wilderness of Dream.” Since color has impact in its ability to provoke response, the scandalous nature of text is in yellow, countered by the cool blue of dreams. The format is the open book, yet it is preserved in a static opening.

Most of the photographs are flattened and close up, as if you thought you might pull the book off the shelf for you own possession. This flattening is reinforced by the strong sense of the vertical spines against the pictured horizontal shelves. The nature of the resting place, an actual shelf out of your reach, it further distances you from actual experience. This juxtaposition adds pathos to why these books are not owned and loved. Do we need books, or will picture of books suffice?

Love is also evident in the plethora of discarded romance novels. The fascination with the imagined state of relationship, escapism and passion is a theme that some may embrace and others abhor. Readers of this genre understand the formula that rarely reflects reality but imagining the perfect love. This seemingly careless and tossed state, recorded photographically, correspond to their passionate titles and contents.

While the camera’s eye is often used here to flatten the picture plane, the monumentality of raking light is apparent in “Poetry.” The tower of books is caressed and sculpted by an almost cathedral beam of light illuminating the space. The dimensional nature harkens to an empty church of beautiful and moving words. The ascendant tower also asks the question of how to reach the top and pierces upward like a gothic spire.

This exhibition is interesting for two reasons. First, the artist has the opportunity to view an emerging body of work outside the intimate setting of the studio. Secondly, you the viewer have a chance to see an artist in process of working through concept, medium, subject and intent. In this setting exists the possibility of visual dialog that adds new voices to singular work. It is becoming obvious the diverse nature of camera image making in our region. The range of photographic possibility seems under constant exploration. While everyone probably has a camera, not all are as dedicated to showing new visions as our local photographic community.

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