From the Depths of the Salt Sea

Glauke by Anne Davey
Glauke by Anne Davey

Paintings and Drawings by Anne Davey

Show Dates: November 10, 2016 – September 16, 2017


Beginning November 10, the Center for Hellenic Studies will showcase a series of paintings and drawings by artist Anne Davey. This exhibit imagines encounters with the Nereids, the daughters of Nereus, who were divine inhabitants of the sea as described in Iliad 18.35-69. These Nereids appear as anthropomorphic figures seemingly at home in the water but obscured for the viewer above the surface by the distorting reflections and refractions of their natural medium.

About the Artist

Anne Davey is a Memphis-based artist who exhibits nationally. She earned a BA from Stanford University, studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and received her MFA from Johnson State College and the Vermont Studio Center. She has shown at Dartmouth College and the Arkansas Art Center, among others. Her work was published in New American Paintings, volume 52. Through a commission from UrbanArt, she produced three large wall paintings and a photo tile mosaic that was installed and opened to the public in June 2005 at the Ed Rice Community Center in Frayser, Tennessee. Her work was included in the 2013 exhibition, Present Tense: Contemporary Art in Memphis, 2001-Now, at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis.

About the Exhibit

Thetis raped by Peleus. Tondo of an Attic red-figured kylix, ca. 490 BC. From Vulci, Etruria.

The focus of Anne Davey’s work is a visual exploration of the historical and imaginative idea of the Nereids, the daughters of Nereus, who were sea goddesses as described, for example, in the Iliad 18.35-69, Hesiod’s Theogony 1003-1007, and the Library of Apollodorus 1.2.7. Of the fifty Nereids, Thetis, the mother of Achilles, and Galatea, who appears in Idylls 6 and 11 by Theocritus and Ovid’s Metamorphoses 13.738-788, are the most well-known.

Davey has imagined the Nereids as real but enigmatic women who inhabit an inaccessible world. Immune from the hazards and complications the ocean poses to human beings they can freely move in and out of the deep as three-dimensional, complex individuals, separate from us because they occupy a realm foreign to terrestrial beings but still recognizably human in appearance.

Davey’s work seeks to negotiate the space between representation and abstraction, where the familiar becomes unfamiliar and our minds attempt to make sense of figures even when they are fragmented and abstracted. Water unevenly reflects and refracts light, breaking up or obscuring submerged objects. In this sense, abstraction is not necessarily (or only) a stylistic choice, but a tool for the naturalistic portrayal of the real through the distortions of water. We can relate to the Nereids as anthropomorphic goddesses who commune on occasion with human beings on land but dwell within the unknown sea.

In the art of ancient Greece, Nereids most often appear either as women above the waist and sea serpents below or as full-bodied women, especially when they emerge from the water and traverse the land. Nereids were typically not portrayed in an overtly sexual way, but as powerful deities who could manipulate their environment and thus influence the efforts and lives of human beings.

Starting in the Renaissance, however, these goddesses assumed an imaginary nature and symbolically represented concerns and ideas of the day, including the concepts of beauty and sensuality, especially for the eyes of male patrons. One example is Raphael’s The Triumph of Galatea, a fresco painted in 1514 on the walls of the Villa Farnesina in Rome for a wealthy Siennese banker. With the advent of the Renaissance and its fascination with the ancient world, Italian artists had only recently allowed themselves the freedom of painting mythological images, including nudes. Here, Galatea is the central triumphant figure surrounded by other beings of the sea including a goddess in the grasp of a triton.

By the time Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres painted Jupiter and Thetis in 1811, mythological scenes were common and fashionable within the French Academy. Ingres takes a sensual point of view in this image of the smaller Thetis in a curved, beseeching pose in contrast to Jupiter’s dominating, upright stance and direct gaze.

The issues of revelation and obfuscation through water are present in the texts of the Iliad and Odyssey. Thetis appears in Iliad 1, coming out of the sea to comfort Achilles: “So he spoke, shedding tears, and his lady mother heard him / as she sat in the depths of the salt sea beside her aged father. /At once she rose from the clear salt sea, like mist, and sat before him as he wept, / and caressed him with her hand, and spoke to him and said his name: / Child, why do you cry?” What pain has come to your heart? (1.357-362, translation by Caroline Alexander). Likewise in the Odyssey, Thetis appears in the recounting of Achilles’ burial, coming “out of the sea with immortal / sea girls beside her” (24.47-48, translation by Richmond Lattimore). Both of these passages comprise moments of apotheosis from the mysterious depths, at periods of heightened emotions. Rather than focusing, as artists of the classical and Renaissance periods have done, on the moments of apotheosis, Davey has sought to capture moments in which these women are not on display. These are private moments of solitude, in which their gestures are not, as in Ingres’ work, directed at another entity, but are actions of personal expression, subject to interpretation but not dependent upon it. Just as their thoughts are hidden from the viewer, so too are their bodies obscured by the medium of water.

In developing this series, Davey’s daughter modelled the underwater movements of the Nereids, dressed with fabric tied around her waist. This process brought to the foreground how the medium of the water changed her perceptions: she knew this was her daughter, and yet her body appeared distorted and foreign. Our experience with the human form enables us to identify shapes and colors as bodies although the actual visual images contradict what we know. Familiar forms become unfamiliar. Encountering the mythological and mysterious Nereids in these forms invites the viewer to recognize and connect with what we do not and never can actually know.