Artist Profile: Gerwyn Davies

Words by Jesse Thompson

In my eyes, Gerwyn Davies is equal parts photographer and costume maker.

You'll never be more aware than when viewing his work that photography is an open medium where as much attention should be paid to the object of a photo as the way in which it is captured. Gerwyn is simply an expert at using his two fields to seamlessly complement one another.

The innovative and often jarring outfits sported by his subjects speak of hours of planning and constructing, be they in the form of chux cloths, linoleum, miniature disco balls, chord, rope, astro turf, rubik's cubes. The list goes on.

Gerwyn's frequent obsession with textile registers as an interplay at the crossroads of craft, patchwork and sewing with cleverly subversive themes of identity and gender norms. Chainsaws and handguns made of denim, filled with stuffing and sewn together by thread come to mind.  Often, his diverse costumes further challenge identity through the disruption of the functioning of the human body itself. The denial of regular human movement to their wearers, under the constraints of constrictive clothing, or oblique blindfolds, is ubiquitous.

There are other aspects of Gerwyn's work to wax lyrical about - like the flawless use of lighting, which highlights his meticulous attention to costuming detail in some areas, at the same time casting other details in deep and enigmatic shadow.

But that's enough from me.

We sat down with the Brisbane photographer/costume designer to explore some of these ideas ahead of his next exhibition.  Beast opens at Spring Hill's Spiro Grace Art Rooms this Saturday night.

A Million Bucks series

A Million Bucks series

Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Cock series 
Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Cock series
WEARS exhibition
WEARS exhibition

How would you describe your creative style?

I'm not sure I could. I'd like to think it's diverse and evolving.

How did you get into photography? Are you institutionally-trained or self-taught?

I had started off just playing around with image making myself, but eventually decided arts school would be a riot. I went to QCA and completed a photography degree with an Honours year tacked on the end, and drained their resources and learned a great deal.

That comment about draining QCA's resources is intriguing - what went on there?

By draining their resources, I mean absorbing everything I could from the place and the practitioners that work there. The best kind of nerd is an art school nerd, and I think I committed myself to that - always shooting and making. It has been a good habit for me to keep busy shooting, because even if the image I had intended to make turns out like total shit, I've explored something new.

What kind of projects have you been involved in lately?

I have been fairly focused upon making this new work for the series Beast for the Spiro Grace Art Rooms show of late. I have also been doing some costume making and masks for an upcoming music video for local babe Michelle Xen. Also some work for Box Vintage creating a body of work out of items from their store which was great fun and a different challenge. I have been shooting a whole range of smaller, individual works too, getting odd ideas out of my system and doing the usual commercial work as well.

You work across a range of photographic disciplines. Do you have a favourite?

I really like to blend them all together so I don't have to directly choose. I love inserting elements of each, borrowing and stealing parts. I think frequently there is an expectation that art and advertising can't co-exist, but I love that shiny veneer and language of advertising images, so why not use it in making 'artwork'. I love the low brow, it's always been far more engaging and exciting to me and fashion and advertising photography allows you to unabashedly dive in to the deep recesses of pop culture. I guess my work is heading further in that direction now, trying to channel more Amy Winehouse than Ansel Adams.

It's interesting that art and advertising can co-exist. How about fashion photography, another photographic discipline sometimes side cast as banal?

Well fashion photography is born out of advertising in essence. I think fashion photography now though is the avenue that best embraces that integration of the two. For a lot of people shooting fashion now, it is almost secondary to consider the clothes but rather create an elaborate fantasy for the viewer, to sell the product through imagination, desire and an experience achieved through an artistic image rather than just slap it down on white paper or a generic model.

I have faced questions throughout my work about whether it was made for the gallery or the billboard as if the two were mutually exclusive. I find that viewpoint limited and boring. I don't have any control over nor care about how people choose to read the work, as long as they get something out of it. If someone wants to go out and buy a pink feather body suit or a chux ensemble, then great. I consider what I do fashion photography but I consider it an arts practice at the same time. Together. At once.

Is there a sort of social commentary behind your meshing of pop culture icons and fashion photography?

Not really. I just love consuming pop culture and writhing in it. Tragic icons and cheesy fads and constantly revisited fashion cues are all so camp and fun. I particularly love a pop culture tragedy.

Would you say there are any visual motifs that you're consistently attracted to through the exploration of these ideas?

I guess I am always exploring strong geometric design and futuristic forms that are available in fashion. I am endlessly obsessed with Alexander McQueen, Viktor & Rolf, Rei Kawakubo, Philip Treacy, etc. - people who abstract form and make bold geometric decisions with material. I love working with recycled materials, I like that something has an existing shape and role and then that challenge of abstracting, repeating, manipulating that object to give it an entirely new form and function is always stimulating for me. I love the work of Nick Cave (not the singer clearly, but I love him too), and Bart Hess for their use of those strategies as well. I love working with colourful plastics and engaging the body in regular function and movement, and I think it offers good opportunities for humour, camp and play. It's something that I'm trying to enjoy more in my work. I realised I was having a great time making these things and the viewer was missing out on that.

What's the most rewarding part of the creative process?

It's all pretty rewarding really. I guess it's extremely satisfying when you have a vision for something and it turns out exactly how you'd anticipated. That is kind of rare for me though as I am always making decisions and taking turns throughout the process, largely because I am led by the material I am working with. I always enjoy the physical act of making, the craft and costume processes, it can get fairly repetitive and monotonous and I enjoy that time concentrating on smaller tasks and listening to Britney Spears. It is actually all really rewarding, if it isn't you're probably not doing it right.

What's next in terms of challenging yourself through your work?

I am trying to strip back certain elements and rearrange others and incorporate more storytelling and personal narrative. Basically I'd like to take less photos of myself playing dress ups and explore what other people, strangers have to say. I am interested in exploring new modes through the work but I find it hard to leave photography out of it because I love it so much. I am attempting to become less formulaic in creating a body of work, less regimented and uniformed in the output. I guess Beast is the first departure point for that, be it a mild step.

Can you give us a hint about what you have in store for Beast?

Beast is a small series that continues that exploration of character through costume using everyday materials. It's less regimented in that they are more distinct beings from each other. It's a simpler approach to costuming with a stronger focus upon humour and energy.

Beast opens this Saturday night from 5pm! Until then, be sure to check out the back catalogue of Gerwyn's work here.