“1973-2003” 30 Years of Painting
The Artist Network
I did not see the Matthew Barney show, even though I was in the neighborhood several times, and could’ve dodged the entrance fee.
I did not see the Matthew Barney show. Of course I’ve seen bits and pieces here and there in Manhattan. I bare him no grudge, and wish him only the best.
I did not see the Matthew Barney show, though as the promotional material states, he is “the most important American artist of the last decade.”
When people say everyone saw the Matthew Barney show I guess I’m the one unsophisticated rube that missed it. I did however see an exhibition that is the antithesis, the other end of the spectrum from the fashionable “Museum Mile” of upper Fifth Avenue.
The paintings of Geoff Davis are indeed the embodiment of a painter’s perseverance. A life spent in front of panels measured not only in solar cycles, but more minutely by the strokes of the brush, the emptying of the tube, and the drying of layers upon layers of paint, a portion of that life perhaps reserved for posterity. This, Davis’s second show this season, is the first occasion he has exhibited a group of works he has been painting on for over 30 years. The panels are small, approximately 11× 16 inches, and the palette is mostly white. The artist’s unusual additions of semiprecious stones, emeralds, rubies, and tourmalines as well as gold nuggets and leaf, bear witness to a conception of the rich materiality of painting that hasn’t been seen since the medieval Byzantine icon makers. Ironically, the presence of these “gems” is obscured by the build-up of networks and veins of white acrylic paint, presenting a kind of hide-and-seek that can only be detected by prolonged and meditative viewing.
Albert Pinkham Ryder is a constant inspiration to Davis, though at this point even Ryder’s hesitancy to finish a painting is cursory in comparison. Parts of Davis’s compositions are derived from Ryder and Bruegel, though the “little elements that have traveled through the thirty-plus years have been systematically obliterated.” “Dripping Geometry” (1973-2003) is a prime example of how over that time period priorities and ideas have changed. Underlying the composition is a wobbly skeleton of three vertical red lines that anchors the design, but also seems to create an integrated capillary system. About a third of the way down is a horizontal division, and another two-thirds down is a repeated thicket of red lines that ground the composition. Graphic elements are subsumed in the build up of pigment, some veins lifting up off the surface. A bridgework of repeated under painting forms a structure that arches over the base lines and leaps into the third dimension, like a Gothic arch with its accompanying flying buttresses. “Impasto,” the painterly device used to wondrous effect by Rembrandt and other classic masters to show the glint of light, in the hands of Davis is transformed from an illusionistic contrivance to a material actuality. Its metaphorical intent is the energy of life and the essence of a certain type of painting. In discussing his painting, Davis mentions his high school track career. “I knew I’d never be the best, or the fastest sprinter, but I was the stubbornnest. I went out for the long distance events and cross-country. That was where I could just grind down opponents, wear them out through perseverance. Later, after working on these paintings for years, I realized that I was in a similar situation in painting. I was thinking of having an unending series of paintings, conceptually going beyond the kinds of external happenings that might cause them to leave the studio (like selling one) because I could always envision them being better.”
Along with the white panels the painter also presents some of his recent oil paintings. “The Lovers” (2003) is a narrow vertical canvas displayed, like Davis’s acrylics, in deep box frames under glass. “Lovers” is based on a lesser known Ryder painting and is an interesting departure from the coloristically limited panels. Two figures are depicted in pastel cloaks. The figures and ground are rendered with trowel like strokes of pure rich color. A blue shadow on the right side is accomplished with globs of paint spooned on with a brush. Heads and hands are single strokes of dense paint. Details are negated by the exuberance and amplitude of application. This recent focus on oil painting seems a conscious attempt to pay homage to, or to reconcile with, classical painting. Davis commented, “It feels like I’m in communion with the grand tradition of painting, a twenty thousand year old profession.”
Not everyone is spending their life in front of the TV watching reality shows and trying to look like models. Occasionally there remain partisans, still locked in the battle, maybe years after the empire has crumbled. They nonetheless maintain discipline and focus on their mission, perhaps awaiting word from headquarters of victory or defeat. In the end, “it’s not the picture, it’s the paint.”
JAMES KALM has written extensively on the Brooklyn art scene. In 2006 he began posting video reviews of local art exhibitions at his two YouTube channels that have generated over six million views.