Anna U. Davis on New Sculpture and Age-Old Gender Disparities by Aden Weisel
When you walk into Anna U. Davis’ solo exhibition, Damsels in Distress at Galerie Myrtis, her recent series of sculptures float away from the wall. Their shadows are secondary drawings on the gallery itself. The artist has broken with the rectangle of traditional painting and drawing and given us human cutouts at plus or minus life-size. They enter our space, giving them the sense of sculpture but their decorated surfaces are still flat.
I ask Anna about teetering on the edge of two- and three-dimensionality and whether she’ll foray into full-blown sculpture. She reminds me that she has—a low-relief sculpture of a guitar-player, now in the Permanent Collection of the DC Government Art Bank. She tells me with some amusement that the collector framed The Reluctant Builder, putting it in the box that she never meant it to occupy. Her next series—based on a sketchbook from her cancer diagnosis and treatment in 2013—will be executed in similar low-relief.
Throughout our conversation, Anna tells me stories: the French toddler whose parents let her swim topless in the pool of their DC condo until neighbors complained; the Swedish government official who sexually harassed Anna when she sought social services as a young mother; the mothers who made nasty comments about her son’s sharply-dressed elementary school teacher out of jealousy; the friend who came to the US to further her career but wound up taking care of her husband’s children and falling into a professional rut; the plastic surgeon who told her lunch companions how she would “fix” each of them. The conversation is punctuated by the moments that we drift back to Trump—the man most famously harassing and assaulting women with impunity at this time.
Anna says, “It’s hard to put it in words. There’s a reason why I’m using this,” she gestures to the artwork, “and I’m not a writer.” But Anna’s own stories belie this assertion, stressing their power. Storytelling—whether verbal or visual—is how we preserve and measure our past and how we warn others.
A picture forms of the thousand paper cuts that neither kill us nor make us stronger—the daily injustices that we suffer. It is easy to see how women learn that their bodies are taboo at such a young age, that they belong more to the men in their lives or even the strangers that they encounter than to themselves. If you’re not careful, you can find yourself trying to claw the eyes out of other women to get to the crumbs dropped by the patriarchy, distracting you from their feast. Two of Anna’s sculptures, Contorted and Weight of the World on My Shoulders, highlight this one-sided struggle. They are tangled masses of female heads and limbs with just enough men to egg them on.
The details of Anna’s work recall these multitudinous wounds. The pieces are based on small drawings, many executed over the years past. If you’ve seen these drawings, you might consider them detailed but they’re nothing compared to what Anna calls her Black Edge Sculptures. The original drawings were scaled up to become the overall sculptures, but Anna’s obsessive line and pattern technique has remained the same size—there’s just more of it. The work merges the gendered stereotypes of art making: the large scale and active movement of the masculine with the petite detailing of the feminine.
Anna’s portfolio has a large number of paintings in it. But what she calls “paintings” are actually incredibly complex collages with paint and ink painstakingly delineating each piece of affixed paper like the joints in a stained glass window. Because Anna is a white Swede married to an African American, she developed gray-skinned characters that she calls “Frocasians” so that she could examine the themes of her life without foregrounding race. In 2010, Anna started creating black and white drawings. If the Frocasians were gray in her color paintings, the drawings were like taking a high-contrast, black and white photo of them. The drawings were a personal challenge: “When I don’t have [color], can I use pattern, line, form, shape, and negative and positive space to create interest in the piece?” As if perfecting one artistic style and technique weren’t enough, Anna’s Black Edge Sculptures defy categorization, combining drawing, painting, sculpture, and installation. She tells me that she’d like to push these sculptures to create an installation imagining the Frocasian environment.
The fact that the drawings—Anna’s source material—aren’t new fits their message. Like the artist, many women collect stories of their harassment, assault, and general oppression from the time they’re young, carrying them around like the chain imagery in Anna’s Black Edge series. Anna says that the contemporary women’s movements made it feel like the right time to come forward with her experiences and share her black and white work at a larger scale. Five Wise Men speaks directly to this point in history. Gawked at, judged, and heckled by five, oversize male heads, the full-length figure of a woman carries a bomb in her purse. Anna says that it is ticking towards the rejection of our current standards—or lack thereof—of acceptable, male behavior.
But Anna’s experiences are not necessarily those of the average, American woman. Anna was born in Sweden, a country that is currently ranked fifth for gender equality and has the first feminist government in the world. For comparison: the US is ranked 49th for gender equality. At this point, Anna has spent nearly an equal number of years living in the US and Sweden. While she is quick to acknowledge that even Sweden isn’t perfect, she has some opinions about the differences between her two homes.
Anna remarks on the unpaid labor expected of women, despite the progress of previous feminist movements: “Even though you can do anything, you’re still supposed to do what you’re born to do—raise the kids, take care of the household—and work.” In the sculpture Houseman, Anna pokes fun of the “good guy” who occasionally helps around a shared household. He irons with one hand but looks up for you to reciprocate his thumbs up. He needs acknowledgment because he’s been emasculated by “women’s work”—his erection is literally a shadow of its former self.
Anna tells me about the Swedish government’s efforts to incentivize men to share household and childcare duties so that women don’t fall behind them professionally and financially. In contrast, many people in the US can’t get parental leave. Sweden is significantly smaller than the US—in population and geography—and has a history of strong social services, so when the government takes a stance for gender equality, that progress is more palatable to its citizens.
Anna is baffled by Americans’ general apathy towards our rights and wellbeing but sees the current movements led by women and young people as encouraging. “You can do a lot of things if people only go out and force the politicians to change.” And while the title of Anna’s exhibition, Damsels in Distress, is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the common portrayal of women as victims in need of rescuing, her suggestions revolve around reclaiming personal agency for women and establishing personal responsibility for men.
“We, as women, have to step up and not tear each other down. There are so few places for women to rise to being successful that sometimes you focus only on what you want, rather than staying together and trying to change.” And, guys, Anna says to tell your buddies to cut it out the next time the conversation devolves during “boys night out.”
Damsels in Distress: Black Edge Wall Sculptures by Anna U. Davis
April 14 – June 9, 2018
Opening reception: Saturday, April 14, 4 – 6 PM
2224 North Charles Street
Baltimore, MD 21218
Aden Weisel is the Exhibitions Director & Gallery Curator for Stevenson University and the Founding Director of Gallery WW.