Now in his 80s, a retrospective of Dan Davidson’s art at Exeter’s PS45 Gallery (formally known as Spacex) offers audiences a unique opportunity to view a large number of paintings from the artist’s diverse sixty year career, all in one place!
Non-conforming to any one single style of painting, to view Davidson’s retrospective is to go on a visual tour of this prolific artist’s own personal history as well as that of art history itself! Evident in his apparent need to reinvent and references to other artists in his work, it becomes clear that Davidson is a painter who has discovered much about his own practice through his experiences of having taught as an art teacher and lecturer. The challenge of spotting these various visual references from movements such as Cubism and Impressionism to artists such as Cezanne, Van Gogh, Duchamp, Rothko, De Chirico and Caulfield was rewarding both mentally and visually. As Davidson fervently explores the potentials of his chosen medium through portraiture, landscapes and abstraction; his retrospective also reveals something of what appears a lifelong obsession into the possibilities of art and balance between family and life that are a search which continues to this day.
What is refreshing and (and surprisingly rare) about Davidson is that his creativity seems born from a genuine desire and enthusiasm to capture and express what he sees; art is his life and life is his art! Much of what he paints, he admits, stylistically takes reference from the brushstrokes, colours or mark-making from a Van Gogh, a Cezanne or a Patrick Caulfield; however, the subject matter and hand with which he applies it is uniquely and integrally his own. You'd be forgiven for thinking that this exhibition was the work of several artists rather than one very adaptable one,
“My paintings are wilfully inconsistent in style. The fact that they look like the work of different artists is indicative of what I am trying to achieve.”
Born in 1931, raised in an orphanage in Lancashire before progressing into a career in Aircraft Engineering and eventually teaching and lecturing art; Davidson’s life as rich and varied as that of his paintings, but also explains the context for some of his motivation. From using his technical training in drawing to pursue a career as an artist (but ill-advised but his peers); he used his painting as a means of self-discovery. The artist’s biography, ‘Identity, Art and Guilt’ also chronicles his early experiences working in brewery, as a cleaner and on the water chute ride at Battersea fun fair; all ideal places, he writes, for ‘a people watcher’ and it is that sense of observation that developed his skills in looking and the ideas for many of his early portraits.
In searching for his own identity, Davidson created his own through his art, initially drawing/painting other people. The painting of his wife, ‘Eunice at Sink’ made in 1956 is personal, as are almost all of the subjects in Davidson’s paintings though notably never so much that they are inaccessible to other people.
“A good portrait should reveal the painter as well as the sitter.”
The half-impressionistic, half Vermeer-like subject matter in 'Eunice at Sink', with its warm glowing colours and gentle, loving reverence of the everyday familiarity it depicts; make the painting as engaging to us, as viewers, as (I speculate) it was for Davidson to paint. Another early work, sadly not in this exhibition, ‘Dustbin Collection’ (1956) portrays bin men about their work in London, also captures something of this personal yet shared view on the world, whilst at the same time trying to also make sense of it. When writing about this painting Davidson refers to the shapes of the men as they carried the bins and wanting to be able to record that in his painting. It is that raw enthusiasm to the process of ‘looking’ that is so important throughout all of his work to follow. Shape, tone, texture, composition and all the formal qualities on the nature of colour and form are given full attention whether the subject be a portrait or, as in many of the more recent works, landscape in Teignmouth and Devon (where Davidson taught and currently still works). A room in the exhibition is dedicated to many of these paintings, in ‘Full Moon over Teignmouth’ (1999) [pictured]-
-abstract shapes, stylised architecture and cool colours creates a dreamy almost uninhabitable space reminiscent of De Chirico whilst demonstrating the skills and technical accuracy learnt as an engineer. Also in this room, night time blues against luminous yellows conjure images of what might have happened if Van Gogh painted a fishing or harbour scene. They are observed yet also strange; the ocean appears heavy and fixed, shadowy figures carry about their business in the background, light becomes physical blocks of colour, walls become pavements, pavements become buildings; it is as if at some point between depiction and expression the painterly nature of the medium takes over and the work becomes more intuitive about the capabilities of the material or an imagined impression of place rather than a documentation. An observation perhaps best described in the artist’s own words,
“I am a figurative painter who works to heighten an awareness of what I see.”
My only regret is that I would have liked to have seen some of the drawings and workings that led to producing these paintings (though several appear in his biography) as part of the exhibition.
Never one to grow stagnant, the variety of work in this exhibition demonstrates Davidson’s need to constantly try new things and it is inspiring, for me, to see the energy and relentlessness in the quest for his searching. One of my personal favourites in the exhibition being ‘Office Blossom’ (1985) for its likeness to a Patrick Caulfield whose zen-like, simplified minimal and stripped-back depictions of interiors met with small painterly details such as wine glasses and still-life were appealing in my own work exploring the mundane/everyday. In Davidson’s painting the sterile orderliness of the office is disrupted by scatterings of paper and supplies mimicking that of the blossom tree that fills the view through the window. I enjoy its contradiction of orderly chaos as well as the imagination that something as mundane as paperwork could be given an irreverent sense of joy compared to that of blossom . Elsewhere in the exhibition hedge cutters cut chunks of painted hedges and the canvas itself to reveal hidden landscape behind, cubist cello players are depicted stylistically on vinyl, estuaries meander in red and green, sea waves crash against an invisible train, dots and dashes become ploughed hillsides, lines dance and oarsmen descend in procession as a series of abstract fleshy tones (I think you’ll get the reference here!) It is all familiar and traditional in some sense of the word but never falls into the realms of being tired or irrelevant, if anything gaining new poignancy from when the work was originally painted, in that figurative painting isn’t as prevalent as it once was, rekindling the notion of art that is first and foremost visual as well as meaningful.
“The one constant is that my medium will always be paint. In spite of the huge advances in technology, materials and methods, I still find that guiding a brush or mark-marker, in correspondence with what I observe or imagine, to be the most direct, subtle and expressive means of activating the tuition to take me beyond what I know.”
The more recent work such as ‘Fragmented Waterfall’ (2012) revisits the Japanese feel of 'Office Blossom' but from yet another different perspective, this time entirely changing the shape of the canvas from rectangular to trapezoid, colour substituted for greys and quiet realism. All proof, if ever needed, that Davidson is an artist who is still exploring new ways of working.
For artists just discovering Davidson’s work (like myself) this retrospective acts as a reminder to never grow complacent and not be afraid of trying new things or emulating that which inspires you. This does however come with the disclaimer that he makes all of the above look easy! More broadly speaking though, it offers anyone who views it, an insight into the potential of paint as a medium for capturing a personalised, feeling, thinking impression of the world beyond that of what we can physically see and humbling how a whole life has and can continue to be explored through a commitment to ones art.
Dan Davidson’s Retrospective can be seen until 19 August 2017, Tuesday to Sunday 11.00- 18.30 at PS45 Gallery, Exeter. EX1 1DF
All images in this text copyright of the artist.
Quotes sourced from Davidson, D. (2015) 'Identity, Art and Guilt: An Illustrated Memoir' OSC Books.