A SPACE, A FORM, A WORLD:
THE PAINTINGS OF RONALD DAVIS
by Susan C. Larsen
This essay was originally printed in the catalogue Ronald Davis – Paintings published by the University Gallery, San Diego State University, CA, and accompanied the Ronald Davis Floater Series Exhibition held in 1980.
In the sixties, Ronald Davis seemed the paradigm of the formalist painter. Now, with ten years perspective, it appears that he has been concerned with a multiplicity of influences Surrealism, Du Champ, Pop Art, as well as the more usually acknowledged modernist tradition (Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, etc.). As a result, a radically different interpretation of his work is evolving.
"Imagine a vast sheet of paper in which straight Lines, Triangles, Squares, Pentagons, Hexagons, and other figures, instead of remaining fixed in their places, move freely about, on or in the surface, but without the power of rising above or sinking below it, very much like shadows - only hard and with luminous edges - and you will then have a pretty correct notion of my country and countrymen." Thus wrote the nineteenth century schoolmaster, Edwin A. Abbott, in his remarkable science-fiction story, Flatland 1, where two-dimensional geometric creatures work out an entire cosmology on paper. Today, in a studio overlooking the Pacific Ocean from the Malibu Hills, we found the painter Ron Davis translating this tale into imagery for a new edition of the book. Davis' vision is new and entirely his own but Abbott would have approved. It is the very essence of his vision of space, time, and matter.
Ron Davis is a latter-day spatial visionary, a contemporary painter who has constructed a continuous work and world based upon his steady probing of the nature of forms in space. A soft-spoken, thoughtful man, Davis lives somewhat apart from the urban continuum of Los Angeles in Zuma Beach, just north of Malibu in a studio designed by architect Frank Gehry in collaboration with the artist. Entering Davis' environment, one immediately senses the continuity of his concerns, how completely his work and life are integrated. His studio bears the imprint of this artist's extraordinary sense of space, his fascination with forms real and imagined, which runs throughout Davis' twenty-year career. We can see it in his well-known resin paintings of the 1960s in which the real dimensions of the paintings expand internally to open up projected vistas. More recently, Davis has worked on canvas; his large vividly colored paintings suggest fictional environments where imagined rectilinear forms exist in silent light-filled spaces.
Visiting this quiet man in his remarkable studio one feels a part of the space of his paintings, vast, intense, with vivid shafts of sunlight entering from the irregular polygons cut into the walls and the sharply angled roof. And yet, the spaces in the paintings are not real and he emphatically tells us so. Perspective, he insists, is a rational system but as much a fiction as any optical illusion. Davis has always been fascinated with vast spaces and unusual materials. His art strikes a balance between the tactile and coloristic concerns of the painter and the firm projected volumes of the draftsman.
He was born in 1937 in Santa Monica, California; his family moved to Wichita, Kansas, when he was five years old. Two years later they moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming, where Davis grew up and completed high school. He began the engineering program at the University of Wyoming, stayed a year and a half, but left to take a job as a sheet metal machinist. At this point, Davis had ambitions to become a race car driver. He worked in his father's gas station, tuned and drove his own M.G. sportscar and helped a friend as a member of a pit crew on the race car circuit. Restless, multi-talented, in 1958 and 1959 he worked as a radio announcer, a combination disc jockey, weatherman, newscaster on Radio Station KVWO in Cheyenne.
Davis was an unlikely candidate for a serious career as an artist when at the age of twenty-two he saw the Denver Art Museum's 1959 Western Annual. It was his first significant contact with mainstream contemporary art. His response to it was emphatical and immediate. He started painting and contacted a friend from race car circuit days, Charles Strong, who was attending the San Francisco Art Institute. Davis drove to San Francisco during the first few weeks of 1960 to enroll at the SFAI, thus entering the rich, provocative atmosphere of late Bay Area Expressionism during the period of the Beat poets. He admired, and continues to admire, the painting of Clifford Still which had a decided impact upon him at this time. Among Davis' teachers at the SFAI were Frank Lobdell, Bruce McGaw, Fred Martin, Manuel Neri and James Weeks.
Davis spent four years in the Bay Area, then moved to Pasadena in 1965. Once again, he had the perception and good fortune to enter a particularly vital scene. This was the time of the active contemporary program of the Pasadena Art Museum, of the nationally influential California-based Artforum Magazine, and important Los Angeles galleries like Dwan, Ferus, Felix Landau, David Stuart and Nicholas Wilder.
Davis' shaped canvas and resin paintings of the mid-1960s were possessed of a new and important double-edged illusionism. He projected abstract planes in space through a vigorously pictorial application of two-point perspective. The overall form of the work supported his illusionism by conforming to the outer contours of the image; in other words, a three-dimensional geometric object appeared to be hovering on the wall, cut free from the confining framing edge of the normal rectangle. While it worked as perspectival illusion it also made the viewer aware of the painting as an object in real space.
The work of this young painter from California proposed an uneasy partnership of pictorial illusion and literal physicality. It was a significant extension of the pictorial possibilities of the shaped canvas. His paintings appeared to contradict critical values being put forth at the time in articles such as Michael Fried's 1966 Artforum essay on Frank Stella. In his article, "Shape as Form: Frank Stella's New Paintings," Fried proposed four critical tenets, one of these being, "The primacy of literal over depicted shape." 2 Davis, on the other hand, had introduced a congruence of literal and depicted shape.
However, Fried suggested in the same essay that recent painting had indeed opened the door to a re-defined consideration of optical illusionism. Quoting Greenberg, he focused upon the following point: "The heightened sensitivity of the picture plane may no longer permit sculptural illusion, or tromp l'oeil, but it does and must permit optical illusion . . . Only now it is a strictly pictorial, strictly optical third dimension."3 It is just this distinction between trompe l'oeil and pictorial illusionism which marks the crucial boundaries in Davis' art. His is a cerebral illusionism achieved through an abstract pictorial system, that of perspective, which artists have understood since the early Renaissance to be a useful but fictional adaptation to the human mind and eye.
Davis' work of this period was sensuous, jazzy, powerful in its spatial-optical presence. His use of fiberglass reinforced polyester resin introduced vivid colors, layers of light trapped between glossy polished surface planes. His resin paintings easily dominated entire rooms, drawing surrounding space into their pictorial system. In 1967, it was Fried who recognized the important step Davis had taken. Reviewing Davis' first New York show at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, Fried was unabashedly enthusiastic: ". . . what incites amazement is that ambition could be realized in this way – that, for example after a lapse of at least a century, rigorous perspective could again become a medium of painting." 4 Fried recognized that Davis had indeed opened up the "strictly pictorial, stricly optical, third dimension" to a degree only partially envisioned in his essay of the previous year.
In 1972, Davis discontinued his use of resin for health as well as aesthetic reasons. His new studio on Zuma Beach was completed this same year and Davis returned to canvas and acrylic pigment in his new working environment. His painting changed somewhat, his imagery became more sharply focused, smaller in scale, with clear continuous planes defining colored volumes in space.
The work expanded in scale during the next several years and once again Davis reached for an image which would command space as well as define it. Many of his paintings of 1976 and 1977 were enormous by anyone's measurement, nine by fifteen feet, over-life-size, so large that it seemed that one could walk into them. These employed, for the first time, an elaborate system of orthogonal lines which revealed the underlying visual logic of his projected volumes in space. Their presence mitigates against too absolute a reading of the three-dimensional image, focusing our attention on the perspectival system itself.
James J. Gibson's book, The Senses Considered As Perceptual Systems, 5 widely read by artists and critics since its publication in 1966, describes just such an "artificial optic array." "A wholly invented structure need not specify anything. This would be a case of structure as such. It contains information but not information about, and it affords perception but not perception of."5
In his checkerboard series of 1978, Davis projected clearly drawn architectonic structures upon a warped checkerboard grid. He abruptly foreshortened the spatial plane, tilting and pulling it in several directions at once. A stable structure on an unstable ground, a cast shadow falling on an unreal surface, exist in the space of the mind's eye.
In his essay, "Perspective as Symbolic Form," art historial Erwin Panofsky discussed a passage from the journals of Albrecht Durer who, in turn, was quoting Piero della Francesca. It outlines a tripartite relationship between viewer, object and space: ". . . the first thing is the eye that sees, the second is the object seen, the third is the distance between." 6 It was to express and define this heightened awareness of space itself, of the distance between things and between man and object, that the symbolic language of perspective was developed.
Last year, Davis began a new group of paintings, his "Floater" series. These speak of the tension between objects across space. His imagery is completely focused upon a few variables, an inspecific ground plane, an irregular rectangle hovering in open space, complex cast shadows implying sharply angled sources of light. Light and space, two intangibles, function as active agents in these paintings. As Durer pointed out in his journal entry, the distance between both viewer and object locates them and determines their relationship to each other. In Davis' "Floater" series it is the function of space to determine context, one which the viewer has to reconstruct in order to grasp the essential structure of the painting. What is the source of this vivid directional light? Are these many-sided forms pure inventions or possible projections of objects in space?
Davis's own working environment provides a number of clues to the relationship between projection and reality. They are not literally the same, the one being a study for the other, but they are not entirely exclusive. Within his studio, Davis' imagery seems more believable as sharply angled shafts of light illuminate clearly defined edges and radiant planes in space. And yet, this is not our normal experience; Davis' environment is a world of his own invention. It is a real-life, tangible but highly unusual place which affords to the visitor an experience of his heightened awareness of the vividness of light and forms in space. So, too, are the paintings partly real, mostly imagined.
In Abbott's Flatland, written more than a century ago, the inhabitants of his two-dimensional realm were invaded by a solid sphere bringing the teaching of three dimensions. It was a new conception of space which destroyed their entire cosmology and moral order. It was a distressing vision, alien but also exhilarating as the two-dimensional narrator recounts, "I felt myself rising through space. It was even as the Sphere had said. The further we receded from the object we beheld, the longer became the field of vision. My native city, with the interior of every house and creature therein, lay open to my view in miniature. We mounted higher and lo, the secrets of the earth, the depths of mines and inmost caverns of the hills, were bared before me."7
In Davis' work, distance and abstract structure lend clarity to his pictured world. He has always been a highly appreciated painter. As a young man his imagery was undeniably original, a timely re-capturing of an important pictorial language during a period which seemed to have forgotten the expressive power of perspectival vision. It was as if we had chosen to live in a two-dimensional realm, our own late twentieth-century Flatland. Davis opened it up again giving us that exhilarating three-dimensional vision of which the fictional narrator speaks.
Susan C. Larsen
IMAGINE A SPACE, A FORM, A WORLD: THE PAINTINGS OF RONALD DAVIS
by Susan C. Larsen