Cancer knocks any life off balance at every level, from the cellular to the metaphysical, especially when the patient is young. Jamie Davis was 17 when she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in her femur and underwent a grueling course of chemotherapy. Then, as if this were a modern fairy tale, doctors found her bone cells to be normal again, exactly a year and a day after the initial diagnosis.
But it's even harder to heal time than it is to cure cancer. It's a decade later and in her exhibit Marking Time, Akron's Davis, who is this year's recipient of the prestigious Wendy L. Moore Emerging Artist exhibit and grant, contemplates and, in a way, relives the texture of a dislocated and lonely era. The two-part exhibit combines soft, intimate materials like cotton and wax - evocative of touch and the gentle sensitivity of human skin - with radical formal shifts in physical and intellectual scale. It helps that MOCA's organically flowing, clinically immaculate Ginn Gallery, divided by a long glass wall into a broad passageway and a larger, irregularly shaped gallery space, works perfectly with Davis' medical tropes.
Davis' first concern was to create two labor-intensive works for these separate spaces, filled with actual, lived time and a sense of pleasure as well as pain. The larger, more sculptural installation, titled "Anamnesis," consists of 30 globular constellations made up of about 10,000 round pads of cotton batting. These are distributed in groups of 365, one for every day of each year of the artist's life, and are gathered in radiating triangular sections that look like sea urchins or coin purses varying from three to seven inches in diameter, suspended on sturdy wire armatures. Davis told MOCA curator Indra Lacis that she chose cotton as a material in part for its comfort factor; as she planned the daily details of an onerous six-month production schedule for this work, she incorporated a small, sustaining pleasure.
Looking something like greatly enlarged spores, Davis' cellular clusters hang at about eye level. There are no straight paths or clear sightlines to follow here, so visitors wind between the dangling yard-wide structures, bumping into them, partly blocked by them. If this is a visualization of a kind of time, its essential feature is that it has no "arrow," presents no clear sense of past, present or future, beginning or end. Each year is a discreet unit, composed of further units hand-stitched together as if to say a person's living is like handiwork, a matter of concentration mixed with distraction, sustained by repetition. Who knows what the shape of a life really is? We feel our way over the softly porous edge of each day, falling into the next.
The size and color of the cotton batting varies. The artist's younger years are built from smaller and whiter units, while toward the center of "Anamnesis," the largest, cancer-ridden mass, referring to 1997, has a deep gray tone; here Davis has used homemade charcoal as a stain. "Anamnesis," as a medical term, means "complete medical history," but it also has philosophical implications. In Plato, it refers to the process of reconstructing memories of ideal forms from an earlier life - intuitive flashbacks that recall a purer state of the world.
As cancer cells divide and increase exponentially, so does the consideration of time as it breaks down into smaller and smaller increments of experience. Ultimately, there is no real measure of an instant or any reality to the infinity called an hour, but only arbitrary, relative lengths of the senses, stretched like rubber bands between heartbeats or like the alternate dimming and brightening of the sky. The line of MOCA's long interior window divides one kind of time from another - perception from measurement. Visible from the "Anamnesis" installation, Davis' 75-foot-long "cede/seed" is its antithesis in terms of tightly schematic organization. It consists of 366 vertical rows of 24-inch-wide paper disks dipped in wax, one for each hour between the dimming and relighting of her life. It's supposed to make you think - not so much about the artist's long experience, but about your own.
When asked what he thought his paintings meant, the abstract expressionist Willem De Kooning once remarked, "I think I'm buttoning up God's overcoat." Davis' mysterious rows of creamy, smooth round hours, each stamped with a date and a number from 1 to 24, seem something like God's buttons, or if not God's, then ours. In "cede/seed" they're pinned to the wall and almost disappear as a white-on-white composition, like one of painter Agnes Martin's delicately monochromatic grids. It would take between 75 and 80 such walls to represent an average life span. Whether that's a lot or a little depends on your point of view. For those with a fatal illness, each hour is a stepping-stone across fast, deep currents. But, as Davis reminds us, all our joys and sorrows, however numerous, are finite.
Each visitor to the show is invited to pick one of the disks off the wall and take it home as a memento. As of this writing, the display looks like a diagram not of memory, but of forgetfulness. Random areas are blank, like a city late at night, turning off its lights. When all the buttons are gone, all the hours forgotten or polished clear by the grinding of subsequent events, surely something will yet remain, like the pins still stuck in the wall - the ways we were once fastened to the world.