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Book of the Week: Selected by Odette England

Book Review The Shabbiness of Beauty Photographs by Moyra Davey & Peter Hujar Reviewed by Odette England "I dismember the book page by page. Isn’t taking a photograph a sort of dismembering of the world? Consider subbing dismemberment for another word. Word is in world. There is no L in Moyra or Davey or Peter or Hujar or The Shabbiness of Beauty or Vanishing. Rather, lots of love, lonesomeness, lust, looking, and light..."

The Shabbiness of Beauty by Moyra Davey & Peter Hujar.
https://www.photoeye.com/bookstore/citation.cfm?catalog=ZJ617
The Shabbiness of Beauty
Photographs by Moyra Davey & Peter Hujar

Mack, London, UK, 2021. 160 pp., 6¾x9½".

I dismember the book page by page. Isn’t taking a photograph a sort of dismembering of the world? Consider subbing dismemberment for another word. Word is in world. There is no L in Moyra or Davey or Peter or Hujar or The Shabbiness of Beauty or Vanishing. Rather, lots of love, lonesomeness, lust, looking, and light.

I tape the pages to my walls. Regret ensues.

My daughter wants to know about the chickens. She grills me with questions. Whatever, she sniffs at the elephants, waves, babies, and the penis. What’s for dinner?

We rhumba for a week or so these pages and me. I stroke their edges, smile. I whisper to the high heels I love you. None of us says that often enough, much less mean it.


Notes on Davey:

Follows ideas with a camera. Looking toward history or back at it? Self-reflective. Interested in many things that frame identity. Things is an ugly little word.

Tears down ideas with a camera.

The surface isn’t enough.

Deciphers the ephemeral with slow looking.

Creates space for curiosity than judgement. Conflation is at the core; hearing with listening, seeing with perceiving. Creates dialogue.

Coaxes the viewer out of a space of reactivity. Works against control.

Photographs are clues; runes of truth. Wonders where the value goes into and comes out of an image.

Grateful for obsession.


Notes on Hujar:


Uses the camera to look at and long for. Believes tomorrow is never given. Reflects on selfhood in relation to others.

Uses the camera to look for meaning behind things, out the back door, back shed, over the back fence where the vicious dogs are. Vicious as in m├ęchant.

Creates implications. Photographs as implications. Marvels at societal norms invading, pervading.

Photographs limitations.

Thinks in process. Knows that the brain confuses fear with passion.

Ponders image archetypes. Wary of ideas becoming thin… slip, slip, slipping away.

Enjoys recklessness. Assures David I am with you.

Responds to what one can’t imagine. Uses the frame as structure to de-structure.

Craves the weight of physicality. Experiments with thresholds. To hold and be thrashed. Aches for aftermath.

***

The photographer is always collaborating. With a friend, peer, camera, battery, tripod, paper, knife, even a cloud. Other artists, materials, inspiration points are all collaborators in our studios. Sometimes we invite them, sometimes they are more like Uncle Buck. We can’t do without them.

The Shabbiness of Beauty is a book of collaborations. Moyra with Peter; Peter with David Wojnarowicz; Moyra with Stephen Koch, trustee of Peter’s estate; words with pictures; blur with focus, and so on. Partners who penetrate each other across the pages, over decades, through images, letters, phone calls, travels. It’s like an over-under relay game but with a lot more brainpower.

The book starts with an essay by Eileen Myles. They speak not only to the photographs but also taping them around their New York apartment, including the hallways. Their phrases suck me into a game of snakes and ladders. His sea puckers like knots in a tree. Read it aloud. If that doesn’t make your legs go gooey, nothing will. You start this book already visualizing the images to come and relationships past. Artist and muse; author and inkling. I need a better word for ‘essay’, one that is spindly, tight, heady, succulent, and puncturing.

Then come the pictures. Slow. Wet. A slideshow in the rain. Mostly single images. A typed letter from Peter to David. A few muted color portraits. No page numbers to distract. This book takes its time. It ends with Moyra’s text and a musing slash theory about Peter’s letter.

Musing slash theory. Remember Slash? He couldn’t explain music theory well but the man could play. Better than the devil and their offspring. Unorthodox, unabashed freaking joy. That’s what I imagine Eileen feels when their words spurt, rather than drip, from the faucet. How Peter felt when doggies smiled and horses slow blinked (winked?). How Moyra feels when what happens in front of the camera is equal to that which goes on behind it. How I felt indulging in this book, over and under its covers, under my own.

Feels good.

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Odette England is an artist and writer; an Assistant Professor and Artist-in-Residence at Amherst College in Massachusetts; and a resident artist of the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts Studio Program in New York. Her work has shown in more than 90 solo, two-person, and group exhibitions worldwide. England’s first edited volume Keeper of the Hearth was published by Schilt Publishing (2020), with a foreword by Charlotte Cotton. Radius Books will publish her second book Past Paper // Present Marks in collaboration with the artist Jennifer Garza-Cuen in spring 2021 including essays by Susan Bright, David Campany, and Nicholas Muellner.