Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Interior Paramour: The Abstract Paintings of Michael Davidson

Untitled, 2007, by Michael Davidson.

“What fragments thought is not the handling of solids in space, but the dispersal of decisions in time…”  
Gaston Bachelard, The Dialectic of Duration, 1950.
Consider this a letter from the outpost, that hinterland place where painting still occupies its familiar majestic posture and still looms large on the horizon of creative possibilities when it comes to expressing the ineffable. The great surrealist AndrĂ© Breton once remarked that painting, photography and sculpture were lamentable expedients for exploring the ineffable meaning of existence, but that they would just have to do until something better comes along. He said that in 1927, and nothing better has yet come along.  But everyone is in such a hurry to move on already.

But Michael Davidson is not in a hurry to move on, in fact, quite the contrary: he wants us all to slow down long enough to recognize that the essence of painting, and especially the psychic landscape of abstraction, can never be replaced. This is simply because it is a map of the human mind.

Davidson went to that place early in his career, and he has had the astute intuition to remain there, calmly waiting for the return of the culture’s orbit into that very richly textured canvas hinterland. In painting, patience pays off.

His first painting, executed over 30 years ago, was a still life, with imposing Morandi-like vessels starkly positioned in almost empty space. Its somewhat charred and scarred surface rendered the objects with a tender terror, almost as if the attempt to capture their visual essence was a heretical gesture in what was then a broadly neo-expressionist phase in artmaking practice globally.

He has continued to explore the economy of embodiment but more by focusing his attention on both the tightly contained interior of objects, and the looseness of the vast exterior around them, having dispensed with the illusory skin of the vessels themselves and concentrating instead on the identical space which is both inside and outside those and all other objects.

His principal subject and theme, therefore, is the nature of being in space among objective things, but without the things themselves represented and without us to interfere with their nature by observing too strenuously, or in the art of painting, by depicting too exactly.  This is the anti-Vermeer.

Bachelard made his comments about the importance of time in 1950, at the height of the supremacy wielded by abstraction around the world. In that same year, a New York painter named Bradley Walker Tomlin also produced a unique insight into these same matters, one well worth considering here:
One can believe in paintings, as one can believe in miracles, for paintings, like miracles, possess an inner logic which is inescapable. But this again is to believe after the fact (of painting), which is merely to believe in the concrete. In spite of the production of masterpieces, art itself reads as infinitely mysterious…   
It was a great thing to be a painter in 1950.

Field of Night, 2007, by Michael Davidson.

Michael Davidson believes in paintings, and in their mystery, and this is what his do for us and what they show to us: the surprising surreality of high-impact images but without recourse to either conscious or unconscious representations.

Since I maintain that historical abstraction was the final flowering of the poetic descent into the unconscious of which the entire twentieth century has multiple examples in every sphere of activity, this same strangely stable surreality in which we have all lived since 1900 has only one truly accurate form of adequate expression: the abstract image which comes so close to visual music that there is barely a way of differentiating between them.

This is so largely because, as classical modernist expressions, both the paintings and the music say exactly the same thing: you are listening to music, you are watching paint explain life, which is far more interesting than watching it dry its tears.

A contemporary artist like Davidson, who has been slowly perfecting a personal and gestural language of absent images, while using a highly focused syntax in pigment, for a quarter-century now, has also been looking and listening carefully, and well, to what classical abstraction has taught us all, listening to its most important lesson in fact: there is no end to its infinite variations and compelling ways of expressing emotional temperatures. It seems abstraction is often the only language capable of conveying sentience.

Coherence, continuity and time’s melting presence: these are the principal qualities and the primary theme depicted in Davidson’s often simple yet sumptuous works.  They are diagrams of duration. Nothing says concrete duration like a good painting, mostly because paintings are all about duration, even though the best of them are timeless.

A good painting is the result of a long process of decantation, wherein the painter is the decanted substance. The sensation of time leaking out of the canvas of a master metaphysician is a truly remarkable experience to encounter, and one which leaves us breathlessly feeling that we have experienced our own entropy. This is of course, one of the crucial side effects of sentience: knowing it is woefully temporary.

At first glance, perhaps, a painting such as Black Star from 2003 might appear to be about entropy, its core having been emptied of the contents which we are used to seeing in the illusory windows of pictures. But what if instead it has undergone quite the reverse kind of process and is about to burst open from a fullness so taut it cannot contain an image?

Zen Crusher, 2007, by Michael Davidson.

Field of Night (2007), also notable, of course, for its utter absence of darkness and for performing an ironic twist on the void of a celestial black hole, contains a different sort of physical music in its clenched pale hands. Rather than a flurry of jazz notes, it almost presents a visual parallel to something known as “discreet music,” an invention of the ambient master Brian Eno.

Its key, so well exemplified here in paint, is the ability to convey intense feeling and content at a very low volume, almost at the threshold of hearing, or in this case, the borderline of seeing. As such, it captures the essence of another musical parallel, the notion of high statistical density: a near overwhelming sensation of tightly-packed information which takes actual time to become acclimatized to, not unlike an exotic geography which only appears to be minimal on the surface from the sky.

This might be the indeterminate landscape of John Cage. Tossed, as if untroubled. But in between these two signposts to emptiness, a very full and corporeal painting called Zen Crusher, from 2007, introduces quite another resonating theme. First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is. In this opulent painting, as filled as the others are empty, a single calligraphic gesture attempts to forestall the flow of lava about to engulf us.

We are attracted to the ambiguity of its somewhat naughty title, enjoying the unknown angle at which the tongue pokes into the cheek: is it a zen crusher or a zen crusher….is it zen being crushed or is it zen doing the crushing? This would seem to make it qualify as a visual haiku, a phrase  that I recall using back in 1997, when I described his work as providing a new way to contemplate space. It still does.

Like all contemplation, the kind perfected over many hours and years of concentrated effort devoted to the task at hand, eventually begins to pay off in discreet but telling signs of success.  And so it is with painting, as is demonstrated so clearly here: if you resist the temptation to give up and say its day is done, and instead, you put your sore shoulder to the grindstone and paint, the results can be equally revealing.

The painting mine shaft still has plenty of ore left in it, perhaps especially so, since back circa 1961 (approximately), when everyone started to make the mad dash away from abstraction, they obviously left some sizeable nuggets and veins laying around.

But the painting experiment ended far too quickly, lasting only about sixty or seventy years, and it ended artificially, in keeping perhaps with the impatience of the modern world. They told us the zenith had been reached by the first few generations of abstract painters, say from Kandinsky and Malevich on to Rothko, Reinhardt and Newman, and we all believed them.

But abstraction’s demise was mostly just part of a cultural advertising campaign for forward movement, and just like the second and third and fourth generations of jazz, there was so much more to be explored through a continued dedication to the program. Why didn’t this happen during the end of the first golden age of abstraction: did we run out of shovels?

Was it a sudden fear of the overwhelming aroma from the sublime coming up in steam jets from the cavernous cracks down there?  But still somehow, exposed and abandoned, these same veins have recently been revisited by painters six generations later, new painters with a new accent, and more importantly, a new dialect for the classical language. Painters like Michael Davidson.  Paintings like Zen Crusher.  But these are not mere vestiges of a more vertiginous time in history; these are veritable diagrams of the vertigo itself!

Several paintings share a Homeric ode-like feeling we have come to associate with the heroic voyages of titans before history became supposedly better organized. Perhaps this is fitting, since there is a strong stylistic bond here between those other N.Y. titans who first put abstract painting on the global map. Indeed, Jason’s fifty heroes could just as easily be our own crew of modern painting heroes championed by captains such as Greenberg and Rosenberg.

One Thousand Crossed and Lonely Miles, 2007, by Michael Davidson.

First and Last Judgment, Distant Shore and One Thousand Crossed and Lonely Miles all bear the hallmarks of a journey through the mythical waters of modernist painting. This intimate relationship is crucial to seeing both these pieces as of a piece.

What is the last painting?  Perhaps in keeping with modernism’s fetish for finality, the last painting is that grail-like object searched for by anyone serious with a brush, the painting after which it won’t be possible or necessary to make another one. This is the border where Breton’s notion of the lamentable expedient is forgone and forgotten.

Except that it never arrives. There is no last painting, there is only the next painting, and even more important, the one after that. Bachelard wrote about the poetics of space and reverie, and Davidson paints about the poetics of absence and reverie, clearly reflecting it for the duration of the time it takes for a painting to explain life, which of course varies from painting to painting.

In Argonaut, the meaning of life is the search for the meaning, and the time it takes, the journey towards a familiar place we visit for the first time, as it also is in One Thousand Crossed and Lonely Miles, where the pilgrim pauses to aerially contemplate his own passage.

These paintings are transparently clear in style and meaning. They are also about the future. The recent future. The perspectives of the entire series of paintings seem to shift along with the pilgrim:  close up, near to, far away from, depending on the time frame for that particular painting to unfold. The beauty of their raw charm is palpable: each of the four panels has four flayed somethings, suspended in the midst of an apparent and alluring nothing. But is the erased environment the net in question, or is the net this series of dark shapes hanging in nothingness?  For a brief now, no subject and no object.

In the Canyon, 2007, by Michael Davidson.
The absence of a figure ground relationship is also one of the key features in all paintings about the voyage outward/inward. Foreground and background are the same ground; objects around us and we ourselves are the same thing, viewed, of course, from the vantage point of the voyage.

That, after all is also the aim of all abstract art: the absence of fragmentation. Like all the most arresting abstractions, the paintings of Michael Davidson denote a state of mind by transcribing it, rather than connoting a state of mind by describing it.  As a consequence, his anti-images offer us the total aggregate of the things to which the word abstract is applicable: he invites us into the very forest of things, ourselves among them. His "pictures" are therefore not symbols of things; they are the things in themselves, and we are perhaps meant to celebrate their thingness along with our own, not be separate from it, as is often the case in mere representational art. Most importantly, perhaps, he also reminds us that white is indeed a colour; it is not the absence of a colour tone but is the ultimate expression of all tones at once.

In his paintings we are lost in the forest of feelings, with only the painting itself to help guide us in, out and through, since the pictures in the paintings and ourselves both share an identical thingness. Flux is everything. Flux is forbidding only until we accept it as the central reality of our lives, the central supernatural so to speak.

Michael Davidson is painting in the shadow of the history of painting and he is making work which yields images of where modernism might have gone, if it had been allowed to continue on its trajectory. By so doing, he is also offering a renewed and highly pertinent fragment of pure abstract meaning for a new and dangerously fragmented time, simply by so diligently following that trajectory.

The historical traces of that trajectory reveal a mythical voyage almost as lofty as the odes of epic poetry used to convey the mythological cycle upon which so many of this artist’s paintings are loosely based and which they evoke so boldly.  By turning the voyage inward, Davidson has touched upon a form of perpetual travel which contains its destination in every brushstroke.

That kind of light, the kind of unique glow that seeps out of Michael Davidson’s works, shines into the darkness of only one place. These paintings are postcards from a place that the great American modernist poet Wallace Stevens wrote about in Harmonium, in 1923: “Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves. We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole, a knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous. Within its vital boundary, in the mind.”

Michael Davidson currently lives in Toronto, Canada. His most recent solo exhibition was at Calgary's Herringer Kiss Gallery this past spring. For information on his upcoming exhibitions, consult his website.

– Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the forthcoming book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016) available in November. In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008.

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