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‘Could you please?’, Kate Davis, 2004

‘Could you?’ ‘Could you please?’ ‘Could you please should, please?’ The titles of the three framed works on paper (all 2004) included in Kate Davis’ show, Participator, suggested a plaintive wheedling that belied the quiet assurance of the works themselves. Born of exquisite drawing skills and a deft use of collage and screenprinting techniques, Davis’ pictorial world is populated by languidly perverse hybrid forms seemingly caught in various stages of display or distress. In ‘Could you please should, please?’ a misshapen, all too human-looking wine glass has apparently keeled over and smashed its head/bowl on the ground thereby disgorging its contents. Its contorted base rests precariously on the edge of the low table on which it once, impossibly, stood. Despite this literal upset, two skinny arm-forms stretch from the neck of the glass in a comical gesture of hands-on-hip insouciance. ‘Could you please?’ features a laidback, flesh-toned bottle, about a quarter-full of red wine, onto the side of which a similarly toned cup appears to have been grafted. Theatrically highlighted against a deep-blue backdrop, this carefree carafe shows off its peculiar bump with all the pride of an expectant Mother. In ‘Could you?’ a knife hovers over a mottled circular form, flat as a plate, in an obscurely cropped image that vaguely suggests the type of vigorous salute that might result in physical injury.

Tentative visitors to Sorcha Dallas’ relatively small gallery space who wished to take a close look at all three of these wall-hung pictures had to edge their way around the makeshift platform that constituted the show’s fourth and final work. Painted a queasy pink that picked up on the flesh tones of ‘Could you please’, this rudimentary stage was titled, perhaps inevitably, ‘Could you please should?’ Bolder gallery visitors willing to clamber onto this platform in order to survey the works from a relative height will have witnessed the whole ensemble click into an enhanced visual coherence in which colour (including the lack of it in the pencil drawing ‘Could you please should, please?’) played a prominent part. They will have appreciated all the more the subtle simplicity of Davis’s command of the notions of placement and displacement, cohesion and dispersal, in a cleverly orchestrated show that managed to be both funny and fetching, as well as strangely disquieting.

One prominent international strain in the art of the 1980s and early 90s involved a critical reinvestigation, informed by feminism, of a Surrealist legacy once perceived as fundamentally inimical to women. This movement coincided with a reshuffling of the deck of modernist art history that finally brought artists as diverse as Louise Bourgeois, Meret Oppenheim and Eva Hesse the acclaim they deserved. It also, however, threw up an inordinate amount of second-rate contemporary art full of heavy-handed symbolism, clunky aesthetics, and simplistic politics. That was then and this is now. Davis’ explorations of the intertwined domains of the domestic and the carnal, the androgynous and the gendered, the theatrical and the esoteric, have a refined delicacy that is a world – if not several worlds – away from the cruder excesses of that earlier wave of feminist neo-Surrealism.

Caoimhin MacGiollaleith is a lecturer at University College, Dublin and an art critic. Recent publications include a contribution to the Ellen Gallagher catalogue published by the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh