by Whitney Davis. Princeton University Press, November 2017. 368 p. ill. ISBN 9780691171944 (pbk), $49.95.
Reviewed May 2018
The newest work by Whitney Davis (George C. and Helen N. Pardee Professor of History and Theory of Ancient and Modern Art at the University of California, Berkeley) puts forth a mode of analysis that deprioritizes theory and aesthetics in favor of a visual approach. Drawing upon case study examples from cave paintings through the Italian Renaissance, Visuality and Virtuality posits a compelling theory of the processes of visual and virtual interaction that occur when a viewer engages with a picture.
Visuality and Virtuality is the second book in a planned trilogy, following (and building upon) Davis’s 2011 publication A General Theory of Visual Culture and preceding a forthcoming work entitled Space, Time and Depiction, which is meant, in Davis’s straightforward description, to “explore the ways in which human beings have made different kinds of visual space by making pictures in different kinds of ways.” Fittingly, Davis organizes the book through the lenses of different viewers and makers of images, revealing aspects of the cultural contexts and visual processes involved in the perception and creation of particular pictures. Davis distinguishes between an image and a picture, which could be summarized as the generation of a visual space for the former, and, as Davis puts it, “an artifact in visual space that extends visual space into a virtual space of virtual objects,” for the latter. Davis emphasizes the notion of historical succession, the importance of standpoint, and the instability of natural visual perspective, presenting a method for analysis and providing examples that use this method. An extensive list of abbreviations is included to lighten the repetition of terms utilized by Davis throughout the book, including NVP (natural visual perspective) and VCP( virtual coordinate plane), both of which are called upon frequently. The text includes numerous images, a number of which are original analytical diagrams, which appear particularly in a section on Brunelleschi.
While Visuality and Virtuality engages a highly specific language of description and precise methods for analyzing pictures, Davis’s text shifts comfortably between technical prose and a conversational tone. Throughout the book, regular recaps of what has been discussed serve to aid the reader’s comprehension and invite the reader to stay engaged with the book’s mode of analysis. Davis is an incisive thinker whose methods can be intellectually demanding, but his approaches are systematic and direct, and his language consistently avoids veering into the vacuities of contemporary artspeak. While it may require some degree of mental effort to effectively engage with the modes of analysis that Davis puts forth, the reader will find the effort worth the unique insights offered by the text, particularly if approaching the text in a classroom or other group discussion setting. The book will be of interest to students and scholars of art and architectural history, and is a great complement to other works on visual perception, pictorial analysis, and visual culture.