CAMBRIDGE - Penny for your thoughts?
A hundred pennies, actually. You name it, all kinds: mottled, worn, patinated, tarnished, shiny, dull, scored, scarred, smooth. No matter what state the penny's in, each is as familiar as the face on a $5 bill. Yet taken together - that is, seen as an assemblage - the pennies are as odd as yesterday happening tomorrow.
And taken together - as small individual portraits - those 100 pennies belong to Moyra Davey's "Copperheads" series. They're the first thing a viewer encounters in "Long Life Cool White: Photographs by Moyra Davey," her first museum show, which runs at Harvard's Fogg Art Museum through June 30.
The pennies are emblematic of Davey's work as a whole. She focuses so intently on the familiar - not just coins, but book shelves, stereo equipment, refrigerator doors - that familiarity comes to seem exotic: equal parts weird, disorienting, and beautiful. She's fond of series, using repetition and variation to show how deeply seemingly similar surfaces can differ. There's frequently a slight air of mystery to Davey's pictures. It's not because she detects immanence in her objects (Davey's a materialist through and through). Rather, it's because she knows that close looking, let alone repeated close looking, always discloses new information. Secrets? Maybe. Surprises? Certainly.
A stereo speaker, seen simply as object, is revealed to be majestic and noble (the fact that Davey has shot it slightly off center is crucial to the effect). "Shure" presents a stereo cartridge as a gleaming funerary monument, a cenotaph of sound. Best of all are the several images of shelved LPs, which become a forest of shiny, leaning colors. They're striking visually - and even more so voyeuristically. Expect to risk neck damage from tilting your head to read the titles. On one shelf, arranged more or less alphabetically, the Carpenters are perilously near Elvis Costello. ("Just like me, they long to be . . . close to him"?)
Davey's work gives off a sense of slight but unmistakable detachment. Most of the photographs here are in color. Color, which almost always raises the temperature of photography, isn't about warmth for Davey. It's about detail, verisimilitude, association. The plastic sleeve partly concealing a Laura Nyro album cover makes for an emanation of blue within the larger photograph, giving the singer the look of a cyanide Madonna. The ruddy wood in "Floor" could be a carmine horizon from the red-rock West. Of course, color disappears without light. The title image, "Long Life Cool White," is dominated by a set of fluorescent lights. They could be talismans of her art. Incandescence is not Davey's thing: light, yes; heat, no.
Her titles are terse to the point of hilarity: "Paw," "Nakamichi," "Light," "Fridge," "Greatest Hits" (the shelved LPs - ha!). She's even more deadpan verbally than visually. Hers are titles Joe Friday would come up with if Joe Friday had gone to art school. Davey's photographs give just the facts - but in doing so, they give more. These are highly lexical images. Titles, logos, brand names recur throughout. It's not just those neck-threatening LPs. It's the 54 pictures in her "Bottles" series, and the way that their labels matter as much to the look of each photo as their shapes do. Or the thick scree of publications in the four images from her "Newsstand" series. More than just an homage to Berenice Abbott, the series testifies to Davey's love of the word. These still lifes of daily living are about daily thinking, too.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.