Alan Davie: Works on paper
Gimpel Fils Gallery, London
8 March–21 April 2012
by Dr JANET McKENZIE
“When a black mark is placed on a white paper, both paper and pigment immediately become transformed. A relationship is set up between them – a marriage: the white becomes a mythic substance, evocative of infinity and sonorous depth.” (Alan Davie, 1994)1
Alan Davie’s drawings provide a window into his wide-ranging art practice. At 92 he is a unique and somewhat undervalued British artist, yet anyone who engages with his prolific practice cannot help but be intrigued and greatly impressed. He has seldom worked on a single piece, but on a number of paintings or drawings. Drawing is central to his working methods and the manner in which drawing, painting and music interact reveals a unique talent and career. Whereas in the 1950s Davie worked freely on the floor, he describes his more recent practice:
“When I receive a new batch of canvases, I usually start a new work every day. Eventually I find myself working on several works simultaneously. Large works are no longer painted on the floor (there is a more contemplative, meditational mood) and there is no longer the crazy, relentless urge, which necessitated working fast with liquid paint. I have been making drawings with a brush on paper for many years - often laying out say ten sheets on the floor. On each I make a mark or simplified form, but each time in a different place. Then I continue to add another, repeated on each page, but in a different direction - over and over. Inevitably this results in a series of variations on an evolving theme, through spontaneous improvisation. In this way, many ideas for paintings have been discovered, and eventually carried forward in different scales and media - often leading to a series of variations on a single theme, which originally evolved from drawings.”2
The exhibition at Gimpel Fils Gallery demonstrates the unique style and epic quality; he has the power to mystify his audience. Here we see the great importance of drawing to his artistic identity. Not only do his rapidly executed drawings portray his own private language of signs, they also exemplify how music influenced him and his interest in ancient and non-Western belief systems.
“I see in tribal art forms, images, signs and symbols, which I recognize (DEEPLY WITHIN MYSELF). Some of these signs actually occur automatically in my own spontaneous black brush drawings – I tend to agree with JUNG when he talks about ‘archetypal images’. Also, I have made several series of works informed by tribal arts, which have been a means of development: Hopi studies, Jain studies, Australian, Caribbean etc. etc. I thereby find myself immersed in a universal human creative condition, which is timeless and shared by all of us. There occurs, as you suggest, a DIALOGUE between my painting and the tribal sculptures which stand in our home alongside the pictures – they live very happily together. I feel they both embody a spiritual essence which is timeless and beyond cultures or history. Many times I have made studies of forms from various 'primitive' cultures and indeed felt compelled to make use of some of these elements within my paintings. Such images are incorporated into the paintings and become, as it were, my own. These studies become paintings in their own right and are still DAVIE pictures. There is a merging of cultures - this, of course, also happens between different primitive cultures themselves, accepting influences etc. I feel strongly that I am, as it were, TAPPING IN to the vast store of imagery which makes up our artistic heritage from CAVE ART onwards – and of course – being of CELTIC origins one can discern a link with ancient NORDIC culture.”3
These religious expressions and cultural influences can be detected in Davie’s drawings as a means of representation and concern with evolutionary change. His work is somewhat regarded as primitive by various critics in terms of the way he was not aiming to represent or understand the objects he was drawing but was turning representational objects into magical signs. His drawings or objects are often considered to be purely magical and symbolic in essence. This exhibition evokes an air of mysticism and profound curiosity into the artist’s secret pictorial world.
Davie has invented his own poetic language of forms derived from extensive vocabulary of shapes. It is acknowledged that Davie openly gives his allegiance to mystical belief systems and his later work does not hide the fact that he was particularly interested by ideas from the Indian sub-continent. It was in the 1980s that he discovered the Jain religion in India. Moreover, he had a fascination for non-Western cultures and Zen Buddhism. His love of music, poetry, art and the interaction of these with the rhythms of the body created an innovative pathway for the artist. The images at Gimpel Fils range widely from mythological bodies and creatures to galactic curled shapes and spirals, seemingly part of cosmologies. There are numerous drawings of anthropomorphic figures in Davie’s collection of drawings such as Anthropomorphic Head, opus D.1957-724 (1957) in pencil and coloured crayon on paper. His drawings of abstract shapes and figures, evidently have the freedom to progress outwards from his mind with ease and unlimited scope – suggesting that Davie is remorselessly driven by the desire to create. He places emphasis on free association and artistic intuition. Throughout his career Davie has maintained the view that art has an integral place in his life and in his personal development. He chose to create drawings that are different from existing art, such as he was familiar with over the years, in order to portray what he felt art should actually be – the desire for individual expression and the belief in evolutionary change. He felt it was his role to enter new artistic concepts while he sought the birth of his new art.
Davie was born in Scotland in 1919, and attended the Edinburgh College of Art; in 1941 he received a travel scholarship. His primary mentors early on, were Picasso, Henry Moore and Marc Chagall, who were exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1948. Inspired by these artists, he put together a small exhibition of his work from which Peggy Guggenheim purchased a work, helping to draw critical attention and launch his career. Later Guggenheim introduced Davie to the work of Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko. He travelled to New York and mixed with these artists; in 1956 the Museum of Modern Art bought one of his works. Davie found the Abstract Expressionists inspiring but did not at any stage consider himself, to belong to their group. Likewise, although Surrealism influenced his work, he is keen to assert the differences:
“I don't think I knew much about Surrealism but certainly came in contact with it through the Peggy Guggenheim collection. My work has long had what one might call a 'SURREALIST' character in its use of the irrational, but never directly in response to these artists' work. The Abstract Expressionist movement was in fact a general drift towards an attempt to liberate the artist from standard conventions and came from a general recognition of the importance of the subconscious in creativity - in all the arts, not just painting. Many of us had the same urge to find a way of reaching the hidden source and at the time most of us recognized the importance of Zen Buddhism and the philosophy of Jung. Being by nature a poet, painter and creative musician, I became actively involved in all three arts, was part of the 'free music' scene and wrote a lot of 'free' poetry. My work did appear to relate to Pollock in the way the paint was used. If we wanted to make a large painting very quickly, using instantaneous largely sub-conscious direct means, one naturally had to work with the canvas on the floor, using liquid paint and large brushes - hence the fact that some of the paint qualities are similar in the work of both of us. We were both very interested in primitive art and ceremony, particularly the art of the American Indians.”4
The affinity and empathy Alan Davie has always had with the world of sound, is extraordinary. As an accomplished jazz musician, his life enhancing and colourful paintings have musical references. Spontaneous and intuitive, Davie holds that the various creative activities are quite interchangeable:
“Improvising, say on a flute or clarinet or cello or whatever, is for me the same as using a brush on paper. Melodic lines or note shapes or marks and signs are all very similar, whether visual or aural. With a piano, the harmonic development and interlocking of lines with chords, are very much like visual forms and colours (after all, the formation of elaborate inter-connected wave patterns is happening be it visual or aural. To me it is the same). Jazz is a medium where I would be carried (out of myself) by an intoxicatingly rhythmic urge (strongly reminiscent of sexuality) and creating (in a kind of trance) elaborate melodic lines floating on a sequence of chords making movements and loops and lunging forms entirely by intuition, but without any conscious intention or preconceived plan.”5
Now an artist in his nineties, there seems no close to his eclectic, exuberant career. He continues to draw with the belief that art is an essential component to achieving a transient significance. There is almost a cosmic, otherworldly quality in his use of form and composition, but at the same times there is a technical side to his images of tower-like structures. The word which best describes many of his drawings is epic. As we peer into the several mystical visions in the gallery, his complex language seems to lie within the human psyche. It is fair to say that is a symptom of exploring a method in art, which is both spontaneous in style and instinctive. Arguably his drawings seem to be derived from emotions or sensations that are embedded in the mind; they are incomprehensible to the naked eye. Over his career he admitted recently that over time his art had become increasingly strange, like modern music. One cannot associate his images with the modern world or with our everyday experiences on earth. Davie is deliberately portraying his work in a manner, which is far more concerned with the unconscious mind.
Davie is interested in the dialogue between shapes, forms and colour on paper in order to aid his portrayal of mystical visions. He was interested in the spaces between his shapes and came to focus more on the surface as opposed to implied depth. These brush-down, improvised forms were adopted seemingly to create a pathway into a world free from the limitations inherent in matter. His artworks are cleverly constructed to depict the sense that we are exploring the unknown; something distinct and separate. In numerous drawings we find there are clusters of graffiti, adding to this atmosphere of ambiguity. His anthropomorphic figures and bizarre shapes, including diamonds, arrows and ladders create an atmosphere of distortion and mysticism. It seems we can associate his pictorial world with the philosophy of Kant, in that his visual forms exist before experience and are outside the ordinary range of human understanding. His collection of works on paper at this exhibition leaves the viewer feeling that Davie himself is searching for some kind of emotional discovery or sensation in order to reveal more meaning about life.
“Truly it takes THE WHOLE SELF to produce ART. NOT the subconscious alone. The true artist must recognize the magic when it occurs: The Revelation of the HIDDEN UNKNOWN occurs, it seems, a kind of ecstatic vision, some kind of RELIGIOUS revelation that is out of a timeless sphere and beyond understanding. As I have actually written on some works: IMAGES ARE NOT MADE AS ART OBJECTS BUT AS CHANNELS of COMMUNION WITH THE DIVINE”.6
2. Alan Davie, Letter to James Hyman, from MAGIC REVELATIONS, an edited correspondence between Alan Davie and James Hyman, Alan Davie: Recent Paintings and Gouaches, James Hyman Fine Art, October 2003.