Friday, 1 July 2016

Bob Davison - Museum in the Park, Stroud; National Botanic Garden of Wales

Bob Davison, Borders, Big Yellow, 2014
Bob Davison: Borders was at Museum in the Park, Stroud until 31 July 2016 and then at National Botanic Garden of Wales, 22 April - 21 June 2017.
The following text was written for the catalogue.

About Looking
Borders: outlines and edges, but, also, national boundaries, flower beds and frames. Borders define areas but also propose the ambiguity of a place of transition: where precisely are you as you cross the border from one state to another? Where precisely does the town end and the country begin?

The notion of a borderland is apt for Bob Davison’s art which occupies the liminal state between figuration and abstraction, mirroring perceptual processes which integrate objective observation with the subjectivity and ambiguity of memories and feelings.

The mystery and magic of seeing is that, unlike a camera’s mechanical recording of data, our vision is constantly informed and coloured by experience both consciously and unconsciously: what lies beyond the border of consciousness shapes what lies within; what lies outside our immediate frame of vison informs what we see inside.
Bob Davison, Dappled, Big Red, 2015
Davison’s subtle and beautiful meditations on nature and memory, on colour and form, are rich counterpoints to the mechanistic images which dominate our contemporary culture and ways of seeing. Pictures are everywhere. In 1964 Susan Sontag wrote Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction [1]; half a century on, our visual culture is super-saturated with images. The camera has a lot to answer for.

The gifts of photography to knowledge – and to art – have been prodigious. But photography has spoiled us, too. We have been spoiled, not just by the superfluity of images - Is there any thing, any place, that has not yet been photographed, that we cannot ‘see’ and know through this extraordinary medium? - but it has also spoiled us in the very act of perception.

Lee Friedlander, wanting a snapshot of his uncle with his new car noted that, I got him and the car. I also got a bit of Aunt Mary’s laundry and Beau Jack, the dog, peeing on a fence, and a row of potted tuberous begonias on the porch and seventy-eight trees and a million pebbles in the driveway and more. It’s a generous medium, photography.[2]

Generous to a fault. The camera’s gaze reveals everything in fascinating, but superficial, detail. Human perception might seem a poor thing next to the revelatory detail furnished in a high definition, colour saturated, digital image, showing us all the visual information we would otherwise have overlooked – and, perhaps, it has made us lazy; in Sontag’s view, the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience [3]. We see only the surface appearance; we need to look harder.

Which is where drawing and painting comes in. Bob Davison’s pictures offer rich pleasures and demand prolonged looking: they embody the recognition that the fullest experience of the world is dependent not on mere knowledge and information (both in overwhelmingly plentiful supply in our digital world) but on looking, thinking, acting and feeling. (John Constable declared painting is… feeling [4]). 
Bob Davison, Petiolaris, 2013
Visual perception is more than data collection: it is informed by movement and emotion, memories and imagination. The human eye is never still; it is constantly scanning and calculating, discriminating and selecting. We experience the world by moving through it. We see what is interesting and important to us – what is meaningful. These sights and the accompanying sensations and emotions are stored away as memories – imperfectly, perhaps – to inform subsequent perceptions.

Remembering a selection of Davison’s paintings and drawings seen during a recent visit to his studio, I remember, in particular, a scattering of bright yellow flowers (Welsh poppies, perhaps?) a swathe of curious, white oblong forms rhythmically dispersed across the canvas (sometimes suggestive of blossom, sometimes of patterns of light), the elegant silhouettes of complex plant forms.
Bob Davison, Umbellifers, 2014
When I return to look again I find that (of course) my recollections are inadequate. The richness, complexity and subtle layering of Davison’s work mean that – unlike ‘reading’ a photograph which can deliver a great deal of information very quickly (and need not detain the viewer for very long) – the paintings demand, and repay, prolonged scrutiny and even then do not exhaust their visual pleasures, for each further viewing will reveal fresh colours, forms and textures.

The achievement of these paintings is hard won: Davison’s study of nature and art has been intense, resulting in his mastery both of drawing from nature and of the language of painting. The story of modern painting has broadly been a dance (sometimes a battle) between figuration and abstraction – for a while total abstraction was the dominant mode (and Davison’s early work shows his mastery of a minimalist style) but, today, a fruitful dialogue (cross-border discussion) is possible, and Davison’s work is exemplary in this respect.  As flowers dance in a breeze, so shapes and forms in the paintings dance between figure and abstraction: forms dissolve and reform in the ambiguous, translucent space of shadows and reflections. It is a mark of great painting that form and content are, as here, inseparable from each other.

To return, finally, to Susan Sontag’s reflections on modern visual culture: her prescription to counter what she sees as the dulling effect of our over exposure to images is simple: What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more [5]. The gift of Bob Davison’s luminous paintings is precisely to reward the act of looking with an apprehension of the beauty and mystery of the world before us: to cross the border between appearance and sensation, between looking and feeling.

Richard Salkeld, 2016.

[1] Susan Sontag (2009) Against Interpretation and Other Essays, London: Penguin, p13 
[2] Galassi, Peter (2005) Friedlander, NY: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, p14
[3] Susan Sontag, ibid., p13
[4] Stephen F. Eisenman (2011) Nineteenth Century Art, London: Thanes & Hudson, p232
[5] Susan Sontag, ibid., p14

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