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The artist as actuary
Danica Phelps’s sex lives of the practical and compulsive

Until recently, Danica Phelps’s art has been all about accounting. Her drawings concern the economy of artmaking and the transactional interactions of day-to-day life. She documents everything she spends money on — groceries, gas, a breakfast buffet — in loose-line pencil drawings. She creates obsessive charts of income and expenditure rendered in red, green, and gray lines. She’s a pragmatic diarist, keeping visual logs of quotidian details and expenses — dog walks, phone calls, buying a pack of pencils. But now, she’s taking more than cash into account in her art. She’s addressing a topic sexier than money: sex.

Last fall, Phelps announced to her family, friends, and colleagues that she was leaving her husband of seven years to pursue a relationship with a woman named Debi. That’s when the nature of her work changed. The resulting show, which runs February 6 through 28 at the Allston Skirt Gallery, is called "Integrating Sex into Everyday Life." Because that’s exactly what Phelps did.

"Sex was never part of my [art] work before. I write down everything I do, and it was never something that I did." Once she’d sorted things out with her ex-husband, Phelps began to address her new relationship in her drawings. "I decided to jump into it with both feet and represent more than the financial, but also the intimate, aspects of spending time with Debi." Phelps draws from the perspective of eyes in the back of her head, or just behind it, looking in on her subjects. In Making Love with Debi, January 11, 2003 #32, one woman kneels, the other sits astraddle. The movement of the lines and the many hands animate the two nude women. The contours and curves morph and move. Phelps’s ability to convey warmth — heat, even — with such casual lines proves her mightiest strength. And it’s a strength that’s being recognized right now: she has a piece in the DeCordova Museum’s "Self-Evidence: Identity in Contemporary Art" as well as a contiguous solo show at Judi Rotenberg Gallery, "Walking from LA to San Francisco," both of which open this week.

Despite the departure from her previous financial focus, the theme of exchange remains. "My work is about value, about receiving an equal amount to what you give. Now sex for me is a very equal exchange of energy and understanding and communication." The "Integrating Sex" drawings also have her trademark system of documenting sales. When a piece is sold, a new drawing is made, a traced replica. On the piece, Phelps records when and where it is sold, who buys it, and how much she makes. The cost of the drawing, first generation or 15th, never changes. When you consider the time it takes to detail each dollar earned, she points out, "a $30 drawing in the 15th generation might take a day to make. You get a huge deal when you buy that." She aims to keep her art accessible, both in price and content.

"I’m drawing two women, but I think the drawings are about intimacy in general and are done in such a way that they can be inspiring to anyone. My hope is that people can enjoy it for themselves." And though "drawing the poignant details makes people more aware of everyday experiences," it’s her recent drawings, Phelps says, that "feel like they’re more important. Weightier."

"Integrating Sex into Everyday Life" runs February 6 through 28 at the Allston Skirt Gallery, 450 Harrison Avenue in Boston, with a reception on February 6 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.; call (617) 482-3652. "Self-Evidence: Identity in Contemporary Art" runs February 6 through May 30 at the DeCordova Museum, 51 Sandy Pond Road in Lincoln; call (781) 259-8355. "Danica Phelps: Walking from LA to San Francisco" runs February 5 through 28 at Judi Rotenberg Gallery, 130 Newbury Street in Boston; call (617-437-1518).


Issue Date: February 6 - 12, 2004
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