In Gerwyn Davies’ work there is an innate contradiction. What we are invited to observe is instantly concealed and denied to us. We are presented with a lone, highly visible figure, parading with extravagance amidst a strangely unfamiliar and sparse urban landscape. Yet this creature, loud and garish, does not wish to be seen. Identity is teased before us yet forbidden and every part of the subject’s body is choreographed just for the lens of a camera.
It is this push and pull between the known and the unknown that Gerwyn has spent almost a decade toying with and perfecting. While he identifies as a photographic artist, the labour-intensive material construction of his costumes is where he sets himself apart. Driven by the objecthood of material, Gerwyn uses costume to disguise and dramatically rearrange the body in strange and surprising new ways. “I’m into anything that has some kind of camp or queer, hard to locate appeal to it,” he tells me. “I am drawn to objects and materials that shine, reflect and stretch around the body.” Scavenging around for material in dollar stores and community reuse centres, Gerwyn looks for anything that has had a previous life, emanates some kind of “weird energy” and is typically “really gaudy”. These materials are then rearranged around a body to become less like clothes and more like a skin, protecting and disguising the identity of the wearer.
Reflective materials have dominated his recent works. Their glassy surfaces draw us in, their allure satiated by our own obsession with self. They reflect the social norms of identity we construct and continually abide by. These bright, attractive and at times gaudy materials invite our gaze as they toy between female and male, human and nonhuman identities. “What has occurred to me,” Gerwyn tells me, “is rather than very simple binaries of masculine and feminine, it really starts to become about subject and object, whether it is a figure, sculpture or photograph.”
While admitting he is heavily indebted to people like Leigh Bowery, John Waters and Divine, all of whom play with camp aesthetic and the theatricality of performance, Gerwyn’s preoccupation with costume has taken a different turn.
He is not interested in the act of performance or how the body moves, rather how it occupies public space in a highly contrived urban habitat. Once we move our gaze beyond the figure, we realise that these disturbingly beautiful scenes are sterile and devoid of human presence. Whilst his photographs might not immediately look sombre or dark, there is always an ineffectualness to Gerwyn’s characters; a kind of futility and a sense of failure in the excess of artifice.
In his recent series Utopia, this ever-present layering of excess tips the work into a new landscape of idealisation. Photographed in Los Angeles and Palm Springs in the USA, the works heavily reference the distinctly contrived and idealistic architecture of suburban America. “I was drawn into those places, and I guess more widely into spaces that are already really fabricated and really contrived, that are architecturally and spatially designed to be alluring and to imply a sense of pleasure.”
“One of the great strengths of photography is its visual immediacy,” tells Michael Reid, director of Michael Reid Gallery which represents Gerywn in Berlin, Germany. (Gerwyn is also represented by Jan Murphy Gallery, Brisbane.) “There is no halfway house. A photograph either works or it does not. Gerwyn creatively understands this absolute.”
In his works, space is flattened out and contained by the fictional device of the camera before being digitally manipulated into places we know but cannot locate. “It’s what I love about photography,” says the artist. “You get to close out all the rest of that information, all the detail, to flatten it down to this very shiny veneer. I’m really systematic about the way that I work, I’m a real control freak.”
More recently however, Gerwyn has begun to loosen up this control, allowing his tattoos to remain visible. “Initially when I was making the works I was a lot less tattooed, so I would go about removing them through post-production, as another layer of self-erasure,” he admits. Yet with every new tattoo this process of erasure became more and more impossible. Now, his tattoos have become a formative part of his practice, adding a thread of commonality between his characters; a uniform visual marker of the solidarity of his constructions and the innate mutability of identity.
So, will Gerwyn ever reveal his face within his works? “No. Just no,” he responds, with a laugh. “I was never interested in the face because it felt like a kind of distraction, away from the important thing which was this anonymous but beautiful and abstracted figure. Also, despite the fact that this is my work, I hate having my photograph taken.”
Exploiting the terrains of place and identity, Gerwyn’s photographs shed the pretence of allure we so desperately cling to. The moment we find a tangible foothold, we lose our grip.