Sally Davies is a provocative artist. There is very little middle ground when it comes to her work – you either love her pieces and spend time trying to decipher the cryptic social commentaries, or you walk by without giving them a second thought. A little background on this artist, a suggested way to interpret the message, and some celebrity provenance, may make you pause at this series of three paintings on your travels in the basement of Aldrich.
Sally Davies was born in Canada, later moving to New York where she currently resides and paints. The works on display in Aldrich are entitled “Painting No. 538 (Movado Watch),” “Painting No.413 (Ralph Lauren Boot)” and “Painting No.749 (Eames Chair).” All three pieces, from a series she created in 1994, were donated by Gerald W. Schwartz (MBA 1970).
On the surface these works look like painted versions of advertisements you would see while flipping through product catalogues, complete with tag lines and promotional bubble commentaries. The framing, block lettering, cartoon-like outlines, and simple colorful backdrops are similar in technique to works by many graffiti artists.
There are a few trends that Davies is able to pull through in each of the paintings. The first is found in the basic titles that are used to set up the works of art as commodities. Each work is numbered with a description of the product being displayed, inserted as almost an afterthought. This gives us, the viewer, a hint about the frame of mind Davies wants us to be in when we start thinking about the message she wants to convey.
One’s eyes are almost immediately drawn to the messages imbedded in the promotional labels that are imposed upon the image. In the case of “Painting No.749 (Eames Chair),” the largest and most overwhelming of the three paintings, the caption reads “to attract arty friends and improve your life.” This is an ironic statement as the chair displayed looks far from comfortable and the least bit inviting. What it does allude to, however, is that by owning a chair, even if it is an uncomfortable chair designed by a label such as Eames, you can be raised to a sufficient level of acceptance by a certain group (your arty friends). So, you should buy one – as the advertisement (oops, I mean painting) instructs.
It’s a pretty pretentious thought, which is exactly what Davies is trying to get at. Where does the value of the chair come from? Who decided that this is something that would attract arty friends? It also begs the question – if you were an Eames brand manager – is this how you would sell a chair?
Davies’ work is powerful in its ability to make a viewer think about the value system at work in our society and the people who have control over it. I like these pieces because they mix Davies’ complex commentary on cultural markers with a simple medium of communication inspired by basic marketing principles. It is a pretty engaging experience to have with a work of art.
But do not take my word for it. Davies has a huge celebrity following. Her works are hanging on the walls of some of Hollywood’s biggest stars including Sarah Jessica Parker, Johnny Depp, Tim Burton, and Leonard Cohen. Sex and the City experts may also recognize her paintings from an episode set in character Charlotte’s Art Gallery.