Brass Heads by Moyra Davey | Chicago Institute of the Arts

Have you noticed this presidential portrait in your pocket?

Through Elizabeth siegel

The arrival of Obama’s portraits in Chicago – Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of our 44th President, Barack Obama, and Amy Sherald’s painting of former First Lady Michelle Obama – makes me reflect on the nature of monuments dedicated to leaders of our country. US Presidents have been immortalized in cinema-scale oil paintings carved from mountain tops and modeled in bronze to preside over parks and plazas. Such representations are intended for permanence, larger than life, erected on a pedestal; experienced as a destination, they often require respectful attention.

But what about the representations we encounter every day – the humble, ubiquitous, everyday faces of presidents – so ingrained in our ways and actions that we rarely notice them? Consider the penny, the smallest unit of US currency. It was born from the portrait of Abraham Lincoln since 1909. It was the first time that an American coin featured a face, overcoming a long-held preference to avoid treating the elect as the Romans did with their emperors, a position only overcome by enthusiasm to honor Lincoln on his 100th birthday. What the penny lacks in value, it makes up for in numbers: there are more pennies produced than any other denomination, which is in addition to the Lincoln portraits circulating as payment, jingling in our pockets, tucked behind car seats and couch cushions, or filling jars on dressers.

Artist Moyra Davey, who has a keen eye for the forgotten and the underfoot, focused her gaze on these markers of worth and worthlessness.

Moyra Davey. © 1990 Moyra Davey

In the early 1990s, shortly after the 1987 stock market crash, she started collecting pennies that she found on the streets of New York City. Back in her studio, she photographed them with a macro lens, which revealed their scarred and scarred surfaces and oxidized hues. Enlarged to roughly the scale of a human head, each portrait shows clear evidence of erosion and reshaping through repeated contact, with each piece becoming an individual object that deviates from its necessary standardization: penny-ness required for its exchange value while marking its personality difference from one another. Davey assembled 100 portraits in a 10 by 10 grid – the equivalent of a dollar pennies – to literalize and materialize money at a time of its growing abstraction on the trading floor and market speculation.

Brass (detail), 1990

Moyra Davey. © 1990 Moyra Davey

Davey’s photographs come full circle in Lincoln’s portrait. Researchers have located over 100 distinct portraits of Lincoln, at a time when most average citizens could have a handful of likenesses of themselves. Sculptor and medalist Victor David Brenner viewed as many photographs of his subject as he could as he prepared to mold Lincoln’s face for the new piece. From photography to metal to take again photography, Lincoln’s portrait models the circulation of money itself. Indeed, in 1863, the eminent Boston physician and essayist Oliver Wendell Holmes, a contemporary of Lincoln, called the small photographic portraits that were sweeping the nation then “social currency, the sentimental” green backs “of civilization. Such portraits, like money, had symbolic value, with an implicit faith in what they represented and their value in the social market of the exchange of portraits.

Davey titled his work Brass, a word game on several levels. She refers to the materiality of the pennies as well as the subject, but she also slyly points to something more dangerous, a poisonous snake with a propensity to bite. Perhaps the bite is mere nibbling, the action of thousands of anonymous hands removing small pieces of the president’s image. Or perhaps it is a warning about the amalgamation of historical figures and contemporary finance, in which citizens worship at the altar of worship and capital. Either way, Davey’s work is a reminder to observe symbols and accretions in everyday life, to be sensitive to what makes sense even if it is temporarily forgotten.

—Elizabeth Siegel, Curator of Photography and Media

Obama’s portraits are on display at the Art Institute of Chicago until August 15, 2021.

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