The subject of Jen Davis’ most recent self portraits is a very different human being from the person in the 2003 photograph Pressure Point, or 2011's Untilted No. 43. Over eight years, Davis created hundreds of images of her overweight body, and the struggles that came with it. Then, in late 2011, Davis underwent gastric bypass surgery, leaving us to speculate about what would become of her work. Recently, 110 pounds slimmer, Davis stretched out before the camera in Untilted No. 55, with her lips parted and eyes closed. Thinking back on the powerful nature of her previous images, and how wrapped up they were in the idea of size, I had to wonder: had Davis lost her muse?
Pressure Point, 2003. © Jen Davis, courtesy Lee Marks Fine Art
Untitled No. 43, 2011. © Jen Davis, courtesy Lee Marks Fine Art
Untilted No. 55, 2013. © Jen Davis, courtesy Lee Marks Fine Art
But the artist in Untitled No. 55 lets us in with the kind of vulnerability that made Davis’ work so compelling all along. She looks restless, even as she dozes alone on the couch in her living room. Blinding light shines in from the window, striking her forehead, and revealing a woman at rest, but not necessarily at peace. Davis' work has always been marked by her exploration of intimacy. In Fantasy No. 1, from 2004, she lies awake, in bed, with a sleeping man’s arm beside her. Of this photograph, Davis wrote, "I wanted to know what it felt like to have a guy desire me." In these earlier, staged photographs of intimate moments, Davis appears uniformly uncomfortable. In Steve and I, from 2006, she sits on the edge of a bed, covered completely by a blanket, glancing uneasily at the camera.
Fantasy No. 1, 2004. © Jen Davis, courtesy Lee Marks Fine Art
Steve and I, 2006. © Jen Davis, courtesy Lee Marks Fine Art
There are hundreds of these self-portraits of painful loneliness. The turning point came in 2011, when Davis was in a residency in Syracuse, New York, looking back on her work from the last decade. The volume of work, and the stasis represented by her many, many portraits taken over a long period of time, have always been striking. For me, that stasis defined her photographs, and made her weight loss even more surprising. But for Davis, that uniformity was imposing. That summer, she underwent gastric bypass surgery.
What’s refreshing about her new photographs is that they seem to make her story even more nuanced. Her more alluring figure still appears precarious when it appears in real-life romances. In Pablo and I, from earlier this year, she is literally on the edge: she’s propped on a table and pressed against a shirtless man. Her dress is rumpled, and her hands push down against the table. It’s an image of a woman who is just learning how to love, and to open up to another person. In an interview with Oprah Magazine, Davis said, "the problem was that I was making myself vulnerable only for the camera. What I really wanted was to be vulnerable for another person." In these revealing portraits, we can see ourselves in the awkward, human reality that comes with intimacy.
Pablo and I, 2013. © Jen Davis, courtesy Lee Marks Fine Art
These current images add a gripping dynamism to Davis' entire body of work. Earlier pictures were easily separable from their counterparts, with forceful, melancholic, and individual messages about the trials of body image. Now, the path of the artist takes us by hold. Another recent photograph from this year shows the artist with Aldo, a man that appears in many of her photographs. He’s holding her close on the couch in her living room, and she’s looking into the distance. It’s a picture that is intimate in a different way than the love scene in the kitchen. We’re afforded a sense of how close these two people are, and of their connection to one another. Looking through Davis' photographs chronologically, I found myself moving back and forth between each of the portraits involving this man, wondering about her relationship with him, and reflecting on how far she has come. Over 10 years, Davis may have changed, but the captivating exposure that exists in these seemingly private photographs has remained the same.