Gerwyn Davies: Plush

Dr Joseph Brennan speaks with Gerwyn Davies about the 23 photographs of ‘Plush’, which through post-production embellishment realise the performative and aesthetic intensifications of ‘camp’ and generate new queer potentials.

‘I am using post-production to embellish and lacquer the photograph, to amplify and intensify the image, so it takes on this kind of queer synthetic glow,’ Gerwyn Davies says about the works of ‘Plush’, all products of a UNSW doctoral project interested in how ‘camp’ – a representational strategy that orbits around ideas of (often-gay) visibility – can be employed by contemporary artists. Davies presents 23 ‘varnished and embellished photographs’ for contemplation in ‘Plush’. Drawn from five series – ‘Bel-Air’, ‘Deluxe’, ‘Idols’, ‘Sunny Boys’ and ‘Utopia’ – and created between 2017 and 2020, they stand as evidence of how reductive conceptions of photography and marginalised visibility can be reconfigured through the sensitive application of ideas.

Gerwyn Davies, LA #2 (Norms), 2020, archival inkjet print. Courtesy the artist, Jan Murphy Gallery Protege, Brisbane, Michael Reid Gallery, Berlin and UNSW Galleries, Sydney

Like ‘queer’, camp labours under the weight of a checked history of use and usefulness. ‘There’s this stubborn legacy – from [Susan] Sontag in the 1960s – that camp is disengaged and apolitical, a frivolous exercise in taste or a culturally singular gay performativity,’ Davies explains. ‘I’m looking for how camp can be reconsidered as a strategy in the context of contemporary art.’ Moving away from camp’s familiar roots in popular entertainment, television and cinema especially, Davies shows how artists can ‘use the performative and aesthetic intensifications of camp to disrupt normative representational practice and generate new queer potentials.’ He does so by tapping into ‘a more global view of queer politics’, which ‘exposes that outright visibility is neither universally desired nor inherently advantageous.’

As is suggested by the tactile sensations of the exhibition’s title, materials – their selection, application and manipulation – are at the heart of Davies’ generative process, and the genesis of each photograph. Davies searches for ‘materials that shimmer, glisten and shine,’ he tells me, ‘that are alive and behave in their own queer ways. Materials that draw attention to themselves.’ Once found, these materials are adorned on the body, manipulated, manicured and restructured to create ‘costume armaments that bury over the figure’. Even when the figure is not shot in the studio, Davies will still use post-production ‘to accentuate the material and bring out its properties’. The aim is to conceal and partially reveal the self, concurrently, as ‘a mutual invitation and denial’ to the viewer.

Gerwyn Davies, Adonis, 2019, archival inkjet print. Courtesy the artist, Jan Murphy Gallery Protege, Brisbane, Michael Reid Gallery, Berlin and UNSW Galleries, Sydney

‘It’s really important to me that I’m teasing out a tension between the real and the fake, authenticity and artifice, and that I am suspending the viewer’s ability to recognise where the photograph ends and simulation begins,’ Davies says. ‘The goal is always to eradicate the figure in some sense, to shift away its human configuration.’ Control over the performance is assisted by Davies playing the figure each time. ‘There’s a lot of power embedded and negotiated in the transaction of photography,’ Davies says about his decision to only photograph himself: ‘to take another person’s photograph is to dictate representational visibility; the photographer bestows or revokes the subject’s existence through the photography. When I’m self-representing, I’m erasing some of these complex power dynamics; I’m choosing how it is that I appear or disappear from view, what is made available or withheld from the viewer.’ An ethics of representation emerges here that is in-step with camp as Davies sees it: productive, disruptive, transformative.

Gerwyn Davies, Fountain, 2020, archival inkjet print. Courtesy the artist, Jan Murphy Gallery Protege, Brisbane, Michael Reid Gallery, Berlin and UNSW Galleries, Sydney

‘Excess’, ‘surface’ and ‘incongruity’ are the three key aesthetic strategies Davies nominates in his work. The first two seem straightforward enough, shown in the mimicking and exaggeration of figure-elements with setting, and a penchant for synthetic sheen – polyethylene-foam-pool-noodles in Fountain (2020), for example. Yet look closer (at markings and accessories of the figure, for instance), and you will find fissure, bleed and irregularity in these photographs, as the line between what is made visible in one image slips into hiding in another. It is in these slippages that the incongruous figures of ‘Plush’ residue. Like in queerness: our figure finds space between binaries.

‘Where a straight photograph is exposing and revealing a subject,’ Davies surmises, ‘camp is applied to the image to create incongruous and queer figures that defy clear classification.’ The processes and aesthetic strategies drawn from camp are applied by Davies with the rigour of a robust research methodology, but the outcome is something more supple: the creation of compelling, complex and flickering surfaces. These surfaces rapture the lines between seen and unseen, contrived and something-touching-on-the-authentic, as the enigmatic, floating figures command our attention, while ‘at the same time they resist penetration.’

Dr Joseph Brennan is an art critic, author and cultural scholar based in Far North Queensland.

UNSW Galleries
13 March to 17 April, 2021
Sydney