Review: ‘Penelope Davis: Smack’ at Nellie Castan Gallery, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 12th May – 11th June 2011


A beautiful, hypnotic installation; one outstanding photograph (out of four); and a distance between elements, installation and photographs that, in the gallery space, seemed almost insurmountable.

The installation is intoxicating, taking the viewer into a world outside of reality – inverted, convoluted creatures “after the things of nature” (meta ta physika) – in this case mobile phones, camera lenses and electrical plugs and leads, the skin of these objects flayed, extruded and made in silicone. These filamentary ‘jellies’ are wonderous. As Susan Fereday observes they are like detached skin, which “can become a kind of negative, a reversed memory, a perverse relic of its previously animated form … Detached, distraught, dangling. But there is also something slippery in these forms, something visceral, uterine, umbilical …”. The installation reminded me of the chthonian nature of the womb, our birth and that first gasp of breath – do you remember? was it all that you ever needed?

Water, blood, the detritus of birth and the emergence of life into light. Floating, gliding to the surface.

Only one photograph, Fluther (2011, below), approaches this detachment. A beauty it is too. The other three photographs felt more like addendum than adding anything further to the work and failed to achieve a ‘presence’ when compared to the installation. I suspect one of the problems was the scale of the three photographs and the fact that they are so tightly framed. Evidence of this can be seen in the installation shot below, the photograph of the blue ‘jellie’ so tightly prescribed and enclosed so as to not allow any interaction between installation and photograph. Perhaps making the photographs slightly larger and face mounting them behind PlexiGlass would have softened the edges of the photographs allowing a malleable (meta)physical air to breathe across the gallery space.

The highlight is the installation. Go and see, it is well worth the visit.


Many thankx to Nellie Castan Gallery for allowing me to publish the text and the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image. All photographs courtesy and © the artist and Nellie Castan Gallery.





Stretched Skin

“Where my inside meets the outside, where my body’s surfaces curve or stretch, dimple or fold, they create sensory cavities that are designed to respond to the outside world, at least to some degree. More difficult to resolve is the place that’s made when my inside turns out and there and no pickets to hide the private things – things I don’t want to look at myself, things too fleshy for the world to see, too soft, raw and pink to be exposed. Bringing the inside out, I am turned outside in and where does that leave me? In the edgeless space of the everyday saturated by grief.

Penelope Davis’ ‘jellies’ make me think about how a person’s skin can record their body’s history through marks – scars, distentions, swellings, bruises and wrinkles – just as a photograph can record a body’s outward appearance through light. We could say that skin is an index to its experiences, but it is not iconic. Skin does not reproduce the body’s image the way a photograph does, unless the skin is lifted to make a new shape. Then, just as hot wind can suck the life out of a fallen leaf and turn its veins into a street map, or sun and sea can batter a plastic bottle into a miraculous Marian figurine, detached skin can become a kind of negative, a reversed memory, a perverse relic of its previously animated form.

That’s what the ‘jellies’ look like: skin, turned inside out, photographic skin turned outside in. Detached, distraught, dangling. But there is also something slippery in these forms, something visceral, uterine, umbilical …”

Except from pamphlet text by artist and writer Susan Fereday, March 2011



Penelope Davis
Smack installation
dimensions variable



“In Smack, Penelope Davis’ latest body of work, jellyfish-like forms have been assembled from a collage of components. These elements include the detritus of contemporary technologies. Among these are cameras, computer parts, mobile phones, wiring and electrical parts. Organic source materials such as leaves and seaweed (many sourced from the community garden plots surrounding Davis’ studio) are cast and intermixed with these forms . After being cast in silicone, the works are sewn together to create forms that resemble jellyfish. The resulting swarm – or smack, as the collective noun is properly known – is displayed as an installation of semi transparent, suspended forms.

A selection of these ‘jellies’ have also been placed in the digital scanner and ‘photographed’. Some digital post-production work is also employed to create large scale photographic images.

The materials and techniques used allow Penelope Davis to play with some of the procedures and assumptions central to photographic practice. The central motif of the jellyfish is a vehicle to examine critical contemporary issues of consumption and environmental degradation.”

Text from the Nellie Castan website



Penelope Davis
Type C photograph
120 x 100 cm



Nellie Castan Gallery
Level 1, 12 River Street
South Yarra 3161
Tel: +61 9804 7366

Opening hours:
12pm – 5pm Tuesday – Sunday

Nellie Castan Gallery website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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