Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Cobalt Reveries: Reflections on the Paintings of Michael Davidson

Magistrati show, 2016, Herringer Kiss Gallery, Calgary, Alberta.

All the photographs in this piece are courtesy of Michael Davidson.


"In the pandemonium of image, I present you with the universal blue. Blue is an open door to soul. An infinite possibility becoming tangible."
– Derek Jarman, 1993.

Loneliness is the cloak you wear
A deep shade of blue is always there
– Scott Walker, The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore, 1966.

Michael Davidson is a painter of atmospheres, of emotional weather, of liminal portals and of frozen music. Sometimes the interface of images, words and music becomes a very active one, a sort of chemical reaction which seems to occur in vivid immediacy, and also one which engages the eye and the brain in a new and novel mode of elevated or enhanced expression. The responses can be new but this intermedia mode is not; it is, in fact, quite ancient in origin and sends its shimmering shadow to us all the way from the long-lost classical world. The almost-forgotten tempus fugit before our civilization entered a state of collective amnesia known as the Medieval period, and prior to the rebirth of knowledge salvaged from the earlier thousand-year darkness. The word for this kind of interactive relationship between images and words is ekphrasis.

The word comes from the Greek, for the description of a work of art produced as a rhetorical exercise, often used in the adjectival form ekphrastic. It is a magnetic, frequently dramatic verbal description of a visual work of art, either real or imagined, which in ancient times referred to a description of any thing, person, or even experience. The word comes from the Greek words for “out” and “speak” respectively, and the verb for “to proclaim or call an inanimate object by name.” An ekphrastic text is therefore a vital and visceral description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art, but even more generally, an ekphrastic text is one inspired or stimulated by any work of art that provokes a powerful state of reverie.

From the cave wall to the computer screen in the blink of an eye: that’s how swiftly the evolution our deeply ingrained and seemingly voracious appetite for the pandemonium of images sometimes feels. The ekphrastic response to images is indeed a profound craving, and is, in fact, one of the principal features that distinguishes us from all the other life forms around us: the urge to create, depict and share images and to watch them together, and for others to engage in attempts to describe in words the feelings evoked by those images.

We do seem to need reflected pictures of what we look like, of how we feel, and of what it all might mean, and we seem equally to need a set of reflective reactions, frequently quite rhapsodic in nature and tone. In the case of the Canada-based contemporary painter Michael Davidson, whose works I have observed and enjoyed for quite a few years, we have a prime example of such reflections, the kind that rise to the surface of our consciousness unbidden and without effort, almost as if they had always resided there.

Poetry, or at least the poetic impulse, is thus the first, not the last, resort one reaches for in contemplating a series of works that feels somewhat like a visual sonata, concerto or symphony, with individual movement sections which are integrated seamlessly in the fabric or texture of the whole body of work. And so it is with the suite of images and words I am referring to as Cobalt Reveries, the ekphrastic response that resulted from Davidson’s emotionally coherent and clear-eyed immersion in a rapturous state of mind that this talented painter has called Blue in Retrograde.

The word retrograde comes from the Latin word retrogradus, which literally means “backward step.” As the name suggests, retrograde is when a planet appears to go backward in its orbit, as it is viewed from Earth. Astronomers refer to this as “apparent retrograde motion” because it is an optical illusion. In the case of a contemporary artist, the term can only refer to a conscious choice to step away from current trends, to step back from the digital and technological realm into an analog domain that emphasizes the haptic and tactile. That word too comes from yet another ancient Greek word, haptesthai, meaning “to touch”: it is the act of conceiving, transmitting and understanding information of any kind, through the sense of touch.

The most crucial aspect of this approach must be the desire on the part of a painter that you see and feel by touching with your eyes, the actual fabrication of his work: the brushtrokes and their dynamic interplay, with light and with our own optic nerves. In my case, the touch was a soft one. I had a vision. I wouldn’t call it a religious vision, but it was definitely a spiritual vision. Walking through a cold blazing blizzardy night and passing an empty glowing gallery with the lights still on. I looked through the door and found it had been left unlocked after an opening reception; perhaps the owners had had too much wine in celebration. I went in and found the paintings sitting silently, but breathing heavily like resting horses in a steaming stable.

I found the music system, also still left on, and wondered what music had been playing during this painter’s vernissage, seeking a soundtrack for these cobalt reveries sitting on the walls and staring at me almost as vigilantly as I was gazing into their interior azure splendours. To my pleasant surprise, some creative curator had selected a series of songs by the American songwriter Scott Walker, subsequent to his launching a solo career with four highly idiosyncratic albums quirkily entitled Scott One, Scott Two, Scott Three and Scott Four, as well as a few songs from his later experimental offerings.

As I sauntered slowly by each painting, read its title and felt strangely as if I were reverently traversing a secular stations of the cross trajectory on some exotic Calvary in pigment, I paused at each image and listened to the song that suddenly attached itself to that particular blue breathy moment, almost as if it was meant to be a soundtrack in a movie. This can’t be happening, I said to the empty gallery, with no one to halt or even to slow down the ever-accelerating speed of the accumulating reveries, until in the end (which never did seem to arrive) all the paintings were suddenly singing together, but each was reciting lyrics from a totally different song.

And yet, they all nevertheless coalesced into something unexpected, something magical, something both optically haptic and aurally pervasive. Colliding gently into a crashing but quiet waterfall of cobalt reveries witnessed in a tilting blue duration, almost like frozen music, and so suitable for a drifting but immobile flรขneur. Perhaps it was because, like the sensitive composer of that music, this creator of visual cobalt reveries in oil on canvas  is a consummate purveyor of thresholds. And perhaps for that same reason, the painter has also chosen to dedicate our collaborative reveries:

“For Scott Walker, and the abstraction of thought in search of something more.”

Blue Ocean Blues II, oil on canvas, 48 x 60”, 2016.

Blue Ocean Blues II

A city like a restless ocean, two towers reaching out their concrete arms, their windows like eyes caressing the melancholy traffic far below them.

Blue Ocean Blues II captures and shares the heart essence of one of Walker’s finest evocations of loneliness and togetherness, just as the song captures the essential languor of the painting, which has its own “scent of secrets.” Situated in a specific apartment building in London England, Montague Terrace, where he was residing at the time of its composition, it represents a safe place: the terrace dwelling is shared with a lover who also shares her dreams with Walker, for whom her “eyes ignite like cold blue fire.”


Montague Terrace, in Blue, 1967

The little clock's stopped ticking now
We're swallowed in the stomached rue
The only sound to tear the night
Comes from the man upstairs

The window sees trees cry from cold
And claw the moon

But we know don't we
And we'll dream won't we
Of Montague Terrace, in blue

Your eyes ignite like cold blue fire
The scent of secrets everywhere
A fist filled with illusions
Clutches all our cares

But we know don't we
And we'll dream won't we
Of Montague Terrace, in blue, oh in blue.


Nola, oil on canvas 48 x 60”, 2016.


Buildings have bodies, just like we do. They can’t dance because they’re stuck in the ground. They want to though, and instead, they sing to the wind. Based on the painter’s reaction to the tragedy of New Orleans (aka Nola) after its flood, a metaphorical blue wave capsizes our vision, as well as the fragile buildings of this southern musical and cultural hub. During the events memorialized, “that summer was stolen away” but the stalwart residents somehow still prevailed, as they are advised to “reach out grab the memories that are left for your hand.”


Such a Small Love, 1967

Mist falls and his voice cracks from the morning
Flowers and my body feels like lead
Someone should have stopped the birds from singing today
Hammers from striking nails into clay

Her face penetrates the blue gray morning
Her eyes pregnant pools produce a tear
Someone should have shouted you had gone in her ear
That summer was stolen away

Such a small love
Such a little tear
You would laugh so loud
If you could see us here

With my one suit
Badly pressed and worn
Like a child left
In the world alone

He speaks I don't hear a word he's saying
Hang on to the pine trees and the snow
Reach out grab the memories that are left for your hand
They'll help you get by for a while

Such a small love.


For Senta Berger, oil on canvas, 48 x 60”, 2016.

For Senta Berger

Two figures imagine meeting at some future date in order to consummate their relationship in dreams, where all responsibilities both begin and end. Many of us have had imaginary relationships with Senta Berger, an Austrian  actress perhaps best known as a femme fatale starring in the film Cast a Giant Shadow in 1966, among many others. Although not literal or programmatic, one salient message of the image feels like a reminder that some relationships we dream of are just as real as the ones we have while awake. Especially perhaps in the mythical Hollywood world of famous plastic palace people, where we might implore forever, “Don’t bring me down, don’t make me land.”


Plastic Palace People, 1968

Over the rooftop sails Billy
A string tied to his underwear
Through cobbled stone streets a child races
And shouts "Billy, come down from there"

"My mother's calling" his voice whimpers
Don't pull the string, Don't bring me down
Don't make me land

Plastic palace people
Sing silent songs, they dream too long
Their memories just stare
A harvest of stars surrounds Billy
The night clings to his happy eyes
A sleeping town square beneath a fountain
A child murmurs a weary sigh
My mother weeps, And weaves her hair
With worries please, Come down from there

Over the rooftops burns Billy
Balloon sadly the string descends
Searching its way down through blue submarine air
The polka dot underwear
To meet the trees, In morning square
Just hanging there, Just hanging there.


Breaking Surf, oil on canvas, 54 x 60”, 2012

Breaking Surf

Two fully clothed figures walk away from each other after a blind date, having decided that the night is never enough placebo to insure certainty.

The sound of surf might echo as a score for the amorous adventures we all try to imagine, if not actually embody in our daily life. Like Montague Terrace, Channing Way is another location in London, one which for Walker offered him the solace of a shared cultural community of fellow dreamers to assuage the obvious loneliness he so often felt he wore, like a cloak, in a deep shade of blue.


The Amorous Humphrey Plugg, 1968

Hello Mr. Big Shot
Say, you're looking smart
You've become a stranger
Every night with the boys
Got a new suit
That old smile's come back
I've become a giant
I fill every street
I dwarf the rooftops
I hunchback the moon

Stars dance at my feet
Leave it all behind me
I seek the buildings blazing with moonlight
In Channing Way
Their very eyes seem to suck you in with their laughter
They seem to say

You're all right now
So stop a while behind our smile
In Channing Way.


When I eventually left the closed gallery, being careful to re-post the pointless industrial sign reading Closed, and I emerged out into the still-snowy night, I was greeted by the arrival of a squad car with two uniformed officers of the law. I was struck by how much they both resembled the two phantom figures dancing like amnesiac Druids through the forest known as Blue in Retrograde. They politely asked me if I was supposed to be in the gallery after hours, to which I responded that, yes indeed, this was the ideal time to witness these small monuments to short breath in the throes of their invisible passions. Strangely enough, my response seemed to satisfy them, and they let me go off without further ado, into the blazing blizzard, into the machinery of night, searching for an escalator to the stars, searching for a fire escape in the sky. There was no as if anymore and everything dissolved with the dreaming night, leaving behind only a series of shimmers sent from the blue future like a tear-stained telegram.

 Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films.He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). 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, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. He is also the author of Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings2018, and Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, which came out in 2020.

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