Zachary Davis is concerned with the limits and difficulties of human cognition, evolved long ago as a “learning and pattern recognition machine.” An active member of Portland-based artist collective Appendix, which is known as much for intellectual engagement as physical practice, his current research explores the resonance of new visual technologies with deep-rooted neurological processes. A broader interest in the collision of the natural and the synthetic also informs his project. While this sounds dryly conceptual, Davis’s study finds appealing material form in an interrelated and carefully curated body of sculpture, moving image, and photography.
Light and shade, Western culture’s historically pervasive metaphors for the passage from ignorance to knowledge, are integral to Davis’s work. Here, a false wall divided the gallery into a bright, storefront space and a dim, inner chamber. In the latter, Shadow Event #1, #2, and #3 (2011) – tall, creased, bulging, conical sculptures made from kitschy vinyl aquarium backdrops – stood spotlit in glittering, black sand, as if forced up from the ground. Their artificially green, brown, and blue surfaces, repeatedly printed with simplified woodland scenes, suggest the interchange between specific detail and quick-reference symbols in visual memory; the strange forms, theatricality, and mysterious title, however, conjure the enigmatic nature of many mental events.
In the same room, two looped video installations mirrored spotlights in motion. In Rovers (2011), a wall-mounted projector casts ranging pools of muted light, equivalent in size to large handspans, onto a floor-based, rippled bed of pale sand. At the center of each spot, a miniscule, animated animal trots along a preprogrammed path. As the “digital agents” meet, intermingle, and disperse, the piece deftly humors the human tendency to scan for spatial and temporal relationships and empathize with simulated creatures (exemplified by the virtual “breathing” of a Mac laptop on standby).
Sweet Spot Drift’s (2011) circular projector moved slowly from left to right across the wall, tracking the progress of a cloud across a blue sky. The tightly focused, selective vision of the camera recalls the exhibition’s title, “Lowbeam”, referring to the illumination provided by the short-range setting of a vehicle’s headlights – a technological update on the traditional enlightenment analogy of progressive understanding and a critical comment on our imperfect cognitive capacities.
The front space was devoted to a series of photographic works. The first of the three collectively titled Algorithmic Series #1 (2011) depicts a man in protective clothing standing in the dark mouth of a cave amid a severe, mountainous landscape. The other images present light-reflecting snow, rock, figure, and darkness in kaleidoscopic patterns. Davis used Photoshop and an attention simulator – a product developed by tech company Feng-GUI that predicts what will catch a viewer’s eye in a given Web page, advertisement, or image – to assist in rearranging the dramatic scene in accordance with a statistically average, but entirely artificial, onlooker. The result is a group of works that feel oddly familiar, but that operate at an uneasy distance from lived experience.
Review: Zachary Davis: Extra Extra Gallery, Philadelphia
Published: Sculpture, July/August 2012