If you think it's easy to make the big, splashy, violently eye-popping canvases like those by Ronald Davis now installed in the roomy upstairs gallery of UNM's Harwood Museum in Taos, think again. As one friend said, "It ain't brain surgery, but it ain't far off, either."
Since the late 1960s Davis has had to bear one of those particularly heavy burdens of a large, early success that is tough to drag around in any career, but in athletics and art— whether musical, literary or visual— such success can be cause for a great deal more anxiety than satisfaction.
Davis made his early mark in the fresh, open fields of West Coast hard-edge Minimalism, depicting illusionist perspective in quirky conceptual guises using materials such as industrial resins, and he continued in much the same vein after his move to the Taos area in the early 1980s. His early and continuing investigations included forays into computer-generated images and
electronic music and gave little evidence of the direction he was to take in the mid-1980s with "Music Series," now on exhibit at the Harwood Museum.
That direction— if it may even be called such a thing since nothing like it ever appeared before in his oeuvre nor has since— is part Wildman Jack Pollock-Abstract Expressionism minus the gloom and angst. It's also part commercial wallpaper abstraction plus a lot of craft and canny art.
As Davis himself has written: "The 'Music Series' represents an 'outside the box' departure from my trademark perspective illusionistic works of the 1960s and 1970s. Even though the prior work contained painterly and expressionistic elements, I felt trapped inside the boxes of time and space. With the 'Music Series,' I returned to my roots as an Abstract Expressionist,
pouring out my accumulated knowledge of the activity of making paintings.
"... (The paintings) are, in no small measure, a reaction to the fickle and difficult art world of the 1970s and 1980s. They are, too, an homage to my heroes: painter Jackson Pollock, composer Charles Ives and instrument builder Don Buchla. They were painted with my heart, and not with my intellect."
The telling phrases in that testimony, I think, are "pouring out," "activity of painting" and "not with my intellect." Along with his "accumulated knowledge," Davis was also literally "pouring out" his acrylic paint right onto the canvas, á la his hero Pollock. This physical act reminds us, indeed, that Abstract Expressionism
was first called "Action Painting" (a phrase I still prefer today) as it stresses what De Kooning, Pollock, et al. were doing and what Davis has done, physically moving and pushing brushes, paint and a lot of people around.
And finally, the comment "not with my intellect" is somewhat misleading. While the action of throwing and splashing the paint upon the canvas might not have been directed by conscious intellectual choices, the action-painter's intuitions and instincts that are manifested in the seemingly random splatterings and spills are actually the unconscious movements of a
finely honed, higher intelligence than mere brainpower. It's the sort of higher intelligence that tells one painter, "there! NOT there!" and which, when followed, separates him or her from the rest.
Davis has such intuitive, higher "intelligence" in spades, and when you spot the monumental stunner "Chord" from the gallery entrance you go, "Whoa!" You do not so much enter the room as you are sucked right into it by the size and sheer force of energy generated within the borders of the 10-foot by 15-foot work. The evident force and passion
with which the reds, oranges, blues, violets, greens (you could name these pure, undiluted colors all day) have been thrown and dropped onto the canvas are both ominous and uplifting, a combination that we always look for in works of art. And Davis doesn't just get the effect from size alone. His relatively miniature "Cursor" is a perfectly composed two-foot by one-foot visual poem
in perfectly positioned pools and puddles of red, yellow and blue-gray over a cosmos of splatterings. From upclose and personal, these electrically hued, emotive outpourings open up into dramatic, microcosmic universes of exploding, melding and fracturing pigments.
From a respectful distance (depending on the size) the paintings are pure, riotous retinal pleasure and remind us that almost every painting we've ever seen like this is a bloody mess. It takes an artist like Davis to show how powerful such expressions are when made with such masterful, deranged precision.
WHAT: "The Music Series" — paintings by Ronald Davis, 1983-1985
WHEN: Through Feb. 27
WHERE: Harwood Museum of Art, 238 Ledoux St., Taos, 505-758-9826