Glisten: Gerwyn Davies' Subtropics
Lisa Bryan-Brown | July 2016.
Salt, sand, sweat; summer. Windows rolled down, rubber on bitumen, the wide open Pacific Highway. The crackle of the radio, the slosh of the esky. A day spent at the coast with friends, skin gritty with sand and warm from too much sun. The serenity of freedom, the satisfied bliss that only comes from unadulterated leisure. Holidays.
These are the sensations and memories Gerwyn Davies’ Subtropics suite evokes. Balmy and bright, these images continue Davies’ exploration into the construction of identity through his costume-driven photography. With his inventive use of materials, the characters populating Davies’ new works are as fabulous as ever, though a little more ocker.
While Davies has always had a keen eye for staging, the settings play a more substantial role in Subtropics than in his earlier bodies of work. Iconic sites such as the Big Prawn and The Pink Poodle Motel neon locate the works firmly on Australia’s East coast, perhaps reflecting Davies own relocation to the idyllic hills of the Northern Rivers region. Heavily saturated, colour radiates from every aspect of these works in a way that just feels Australian. Ken Done, quintessential Australian icon painter that he is, articulates it well:
“Wherever you are in the world, there's always something about the Australian light. There's something about the sharpness of it, something about the clarity of it, something about the colours of Australia. And, hopefully, something optimistic about Australian painting too.”1
There is certainly something optimistic about Davies’ photographs, a charming playfulness that stems from the novelty of his costuming. Stylishly kitsch, the characters seem plucked from a fashion catalogue for the faceless. While the highly constructed nature of each image evidences Davies’ background in advertising, the outfits’ excessive overstatement embraces a drag culture sensibility. Flamboyant and entirely impractical, each character seems co-ordinated with the artifice of its surrounds.
In equal parts mockery and mimicry, Davies’ costumery pays homage to the shameless spectacle of his chosen landscapes. Australia’s penchant for Big Things is a sort of national in-joke, at once loved and lauded by locals. Davies’ characters are otherworldly tourists, map and binoculars in hand, sightseeing and holidaying in a land where they both like and are like their destinations.
Davies is not so much laughing at, but with, the exaggeration inherent in these sites; the frou-frou of The Pink Poodle Motel’s neon, the goofiness of the Putt-Putt mascot, the sheer bizarreness of the Big Prawn. In a kind of pastiche, Davies translates the qualities of the sites to his costumes, emphasising the constructed nature of each. In turn, this opens up a dialogue about the constructed nature of identity, and the way someone is read through the choices they make regarding dress and self-presentation.
Davies’ costumes speak to the idea of identity construction in an abstract manner, rather than referring explicitly to any specific sub-culture or particular style. While the absurd nature of the costuming hams up this rejection of overt reference, Davies does utilise the gendered connotations of various materials to employ an aesthetic of queerness. None of the characters are presented as unambiguously male or female; rather, Davies plays the binary understandings of masculinity and femininity off against one another.
At this point it is important to note that each of the images in Subtropics is a self-portrait, with Davies himself hidden within the façades of inflatable palm trees and gold foil lanterns. Two recurring elements throughout the body of work are his many and varied work boots, and – the giveaway – his distinctively tattooed calves and forearms. While these boots and limbs belie the masculinity of their owner, the materiality of the costumes speaks to a lineage of feminine fashion. This combined with the tacky, over-the-top artifice of Davies’ chosen sites and subjects places Subtropics firmly within the realm of Camp.
Camp is an elusive concept in and of itself, but the most important context for understanding Davies’ work. Susan Sontag’s seminal Notes on Camp is required reading not just for Subtropics, but all of Davies’ oeuvre. As Sontag writes, “the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration….the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails.”2
Davies’ photography fits this bill, because we simultaneously understand that he is both not at all and heartfeltly serious about these outfits and sites. They are beautiful in their naivety, solemn in their fabulousness. They gleam with a sincerity of identity that laughs at it own uncompromised extravagance. To quote Sontag’s ultimate conclusion regarding Camp, “it’s good because it’s awful”3 and to paraphrase, it’s awful because it’s actually so good. Big Prawn dress replete with tail? Disgusting, never. Where can I get one?
Beautiful and ugly, repulsively attractive, Davies’ Subtropics takes Camp one extra step, articulating it within a national identity. These sites are not Camp by themselves, but are made Camp by Davies’ unabashed affinity and parodic rendition. Subtler and less explicit than Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Davies’ Subtropics is an exercise in defining and celebrating Aussie Camp. Afterall, “that’s just what this country needs…”4
 Ken Done interviewed by George Negus, George Negus Tonight, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 1st November 2004, accessed 20th July 2016 at <http://www.abc.net.au/gnt/history/Tran
 Susan Sontag, Notes on Camp, 1964, accessed 21st July 2016 at <http://faculty.georgetown.edu/irv
 Bernadette (Terence Stamp), The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, 1994, Metro- Goldwyn-Mayer Studios