The submerged Image

Catalogue Essay for Penelope's Web

Cathrine Raben Davidsen 13/01/06 - 06/02/06 

Martin Asbæk Projects, Copenhagen, Denmark

The paintings and drawings of Cathrine Raben Davidsen reference a variety of diverse influences. Images taken from a magazine, a portrait by the Florentine master Botticelli, a verse from a Latin text, or an actual life experience are all fair game as motifs for her work.  Formal components include the use of fashion layout and design, which often converge with thematic figurative elements that appear to be from both the real world as well as from aspects of western history. Raben mixes the classics with elements of modern style, which is demonstrated in her choice of colour and material. She is very often uses spray in neon colors such as pink or loud orange. Her work is a result of a translation process where classics are being interpreted all over again.

Raben Davidsen thus seeks to overcome the historical distance and renew the contents of classic painting and literature. Raben Davidsen's work presents mythological themes in the present tense; her work does not start out in the past but rather uses the past as a means to speak more directly about the present. A female figure stands almost floating in the space created by Raben Davidsen in a dreamlike reality that would appear most at home in myths and fables that we heard as children. This narrative storytelling is not the result of a random mining of two thousand years of the literature and art from the Italian Peninsula, but rather a genuine research into the subtleties of this culture, exploring the possibility of their continued relevance in today's fast moving/ever changing cultural landscape.

Raben Davidsen's delving into the works of Botticelli for example is no small matter of light heartedness. What is in play here is nothing less than a keen delight in the Florentine Master’s ability to evoke beauty through the alchemical act of painting.  What Raben Davidsen does is to take the essence of Botticelli, through a firsthand awareness of his works as a result of over ten years of studying on and off in Florence, and transmit this beauty through charcoal line in drawings such as Heroides.  Her interest in Ovid’s Heroides - whose primary protagonists or heroines are mythological women who write letters to the famous lovers who have abandoned them -, shows a keen interest on the artist’s part in re-interpreting the written word. This creates a sense of awareness of what it means to be a mythological woman neglected by the male heroes they loved. Raben Davidsen is consistently seeing the minor female characters in each tale that are most familiar to us. By doing so she challenges us to not simply re-read the classics in order to see the female characters but also to broadly question what we so heartily believe to be real or fact.

Raben Davidsen's use of mythology or (re) creation of story telling and myth making is highlighted by her interest in the character Penelope, the faithful wife of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey. Penelope, whose name means “veiled one”, promised the suitors that she would wed one of them when the shroud of Odysseus father was finished. She wove it for three year, weaving it by day and undoing it by night.The weaving process is the symbol of Penelope's web; the proverbial expression for anything in perpetual motion that is never completed. Penelope's web thus acts as a metaphor for how Raben Davidsen is able to make connections between the mythological past and the contemporary cultural landscape that we are familiar with. In a portrait titled Penelope (with knife), Raben Davidsen has depicted a fearless woman, whose gaze seems even more penetrating than the arrow Odysseus shoots through the twelve axes to win her back. Her hand, which holds a knife languidly against her heart, softly reveals the woman’s gentleness and love, and yet her gaze makes it abundantly clear that this heroine is not holding a knife in order to prepare a nice healthy meal for one of her suitors. Here is a figure that is the flesh and bone definition of faith, hope, and never bowing down to those who would have it be otherwise.  The gauze headdress that beautifully accentuates Penelope’s gaze reminds us again of Penelope’s Web and like the expression which brings ambiguity and multiplicity into the world of humans it simultaneously serves to make Raben Davidsen’s paintings affect the viewer in a like manner. Penelope is also a lead in figure to other figurative paintings like The Riddle. In The Riddle Raben Davidsen picks up on the idea of the Sphinx's beauty and suggests a 15th century hair style that brings to mind Roger Van der Weyden. By giving it to an ancient mythological character, Raben Davidsen inventively plays with the idea that the Sphinx used her hair to momentarily distract many of the most intelligent young men of Thebes from focusing their full attention on the riddle.Therefore, responding incorrectly leads ultimately to their deaths.  The pinks and purples of this painting underline the figures femaleness and faintness, which is then brought up and enhanced by a warm yellow ochre at the bottom; color and line coalescing to form a picture that is both mysterious and enigmatic.  

Coinciding with Raben Davidsen’s interest in myth is her continual dialogue with fashion. This  has allowed her to form a language that is at once overtly recognizable as a reflection of our time; as can be seen from her depictions of young men that occasionally are re-interpretations of portraits of youths taken from a Filippino Lippi  but could just as easily be models posing in Italian Vogue. As in her depiction of Penelope [with Knife], a strong sense of will, can be seen in the eyes of the portrait titled Lippi and yet we are also lead to believe that he is still going through the struggle of self-realization regarding his position in the world.  What Raben Davidsen does so well is create a strong sense of duality as well as ambiguity in these youthful portraits.  We as viewers are granted access to this youth but it would seem only as long as he will let us.  Such is the mystery that surrounds practically all of these portraits that appear to be shrouded in a type of mist that could perhaps even recall memory.  Our collective memory of what it means to be a youth or perhaps the seemingly unstoppable cultural machine that promotes youth above all other things in today’s world.  

Curiosity is no doubt what pushes the artist to discover more of what it means to actually be actively making art in today’s world. Her challenge is firstly one she has set up for herself, and in so doing she has succeeded in creating a bridge of understanding that is identifiable in her works as a means of communicating beyond mere self-indulgence.  Layers of history are echoed through layers of pigment and charcoal, and as such we become fascinated. And with fascination and intrigue an image is born that marks itself out in our minds as successful and continually worth contemplating.  

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