PHILADELPHIA — Nancy Davidson’s sculptures have a bombastic quality, like an overbearing, gaudily dressed aunt who has just arrived late to a family gathering. Her new show at Lord Ludd, called Ridin’ High, utterly transforms the gallery, with works blockading entrances, rising up towards the ceiling, and settling on the polished wood floors. The sculptures hover, suspend, or sway on spindly foam legs. Ridin’ High is playful, ridiculous, vibrant, spanning from Davidson’s perverted inflatable balloon sculptures of the ‘90s to pieces created this year.
Davidson’s best-known inflatables, called “Lulus,” are balloons squeezed and constricted by corsets, shaped into bifurcated bulbous masses by a taut rope, referencing either or both ends of the female torso. “Blue Moon,” a large, ultramarine balloon, hangs forebodingly over the stairwell as you enter the gallery, like having a stranger’s ass thrust in your face during a rush hour subway ride. The piece, like many of Davidson’s, is an homage to popular culture, referencing Elvis’s days performing in Vegas, where he wore a garment akin to a corset to hold in his expanding belly fat.
Scattered throughout the space are her newer inflatables — the sad-looking “Fallen Clouds,” which are blue-spotted and half-inflated, and are trailed by soft, long white string, braided into thick fishtails. In the back of the gallery a group of bright pink lulus collude in a corner, partially obscured by a wall, nestled together as if engaging in girlish gossip. The lulus have drawn reference from sexualized figures like Betty Boop and Mae West, playing on the exaggerated femininity of their forms, bringing up conversations around desirability, body modifications, and depictions of women in popular culture. The introductory essay for the show, written by Andria Hickey, makes the apt comparison to the bulging, oiled forms of Kim Kardashian’s body.
Taking center stage and towering over the lulus are more of Davidson’s new works — huge, teetering litters, such as the kind once used to carry royalty, standing on legs of soft foam, wrapped in photo-printed spandex. These works stand tall and haughty, some reaching 11 feet; they are a commanding presence undercut by the languidness of the foam they’re constructed from. The work has a wry sense of humor, winking to the illusions of wood grain and chain link fencing on the clinging spandex.
In a recent interview with the Brooklyn Rail, Davidson said, “Where is the authentic in today’s culture? Everything is put on a pedestal and applauded. That’s what my new work is addressing … I started doing drawings of knots, thinking about knots as a metaphor for things that are tangled. The absurdity of privileging knots by putting them up high on litters and parading them around was really funny to me.”
These giant knots, which look like contorted pool noodles, ride atop the litters and partake in a different conversation, donning the bandanas of the “hanky code” used in gay bars in the ‘70s to signify sexual preference. Both knots wear red bandanas, signaling desire for fisting, but it’s unclear if they’re compatible or just cruising in the same territory. Curiously, the black and white checkered knot is tethered to one of the gallery’s structural posts which straddles the hulking, defunct elevator lift mounted to the ceiling, a permanent fixture in the space. In a moment of humor, the knot’s twisting form mimics the turning cogs of the massive piece of machinery. Playing up the power dynamics, the rope that binds the sculptures is the soft, supple fiber used in S&M bondage.
Davidson is an unabashed second-wave feminist, whose work has explored issues of the body and the structures that bind it — both physical and social — for 30 years. Ridin’ High facilitates a conversation about bodies and power when women’s reproductive rights are under intense scrutiny, and when our economic and political systems more closely resemble an oligarchy than a democracy. The tableaux she lays out in Lord Ludd are playful and metaphorical, alluding to the standards of appearance and desire we are all bound to and complicit in. She deals in a cartoonish sensibility, a space where bodies become abstracted, large, limitless. You suspend your disbelief as Wile E. Coyote is suspended midair in a Looney Tunes episode before plunging off the cliff, for it seems anything is possible in the spaces Davidson creates.
Nancy Davidson: Ridin’ High continues at Lord Ludd (5th Floor, 306 Market St, Philadelphia) through May 29.