States Of Resistance
By Jennifer Riley
Karin Davie belongs to a generation of New York artists for whom the debate over the death of painting is not so much irrelevant as it simply seems to belong to a wholly different system; one with its own set of criteria and forms of evaluation for garnering attention.
From a vantage point within a completely pluralistic situation today, we find art-world support is possible for an unlimited range of styles and endless combinations of mediums, where the debate between specific disciplines such as painting and sculpture, and modes such as abstraction versus representation no longer apply. However, amid these myriad possibilities of expressive forms, methods and techniques, Karin Davie has invented new images using the most basic of the traditional mediums; a loaded brush of colored pigments suspended in liquid and a prepared linen surface. She has achieved this by manipulating the conventional stripe, reaching into painting’s past to acknowledge those who came before, and in remaining alert to present conditions in and outside of the studio. She has combined stripe and stroke with direct action balanced by precise movement akin to a dancer’s choreographed movements, to produce immediately engaging, satisfying works that simultaneously resist and invite understanding.
Karin Davie: From Stripe to Stroke
In the early 90’s, Davie set up a personally challenging problem for herself to solve in paint. She wanted her painting to add to the tradition of stripe painting and to make the work seem relevant within the realm of contemporary abstract painting. The wise choice to limit her motif to the stripe, enabled her to explore the poles of reduction and expansion.
In response to formal achievements of artists such as, Gene Davis, Morris Louis, Ellsworth Kelly and Moira Dryer, Davie began to incorporate ideas of scale, repetition, and gravity into a personal and expressive language to which she added the element of the body in her work. At this time she was responding as much to what had been fore- grounded in painting such as flatness, non-objectivity and purity as to what been jettisoned: gesture; evidence of the hand, illusionism, figuration, and narrative by the generations of artists working immediately following Abstract Expressionism.
Over the course of the next decade she developed several series of paintings incorporating the stripe. Each series proposed new questions, new challenges that belie a serious, sharp intelligence tinged with a sense of humor. To her credit (as in all good art), the work never declared solutions; instead they remained fresh and open, inviting additional inquiry.
In work made from 1998 –2003, the motif of the stripe morphed into fluid, sensuous strokes of highly saturated colors which formed compressed images in shallow spaces that recall figures and faces as if distorted on reflective surfaces such as car windows, chrome bumpers, and fun-house mirrors. These paintings had a slapstick quality to them. In attempting to simultaneously reveal and conceal something, the mark became what the image itself suggested it was doing, a type of parody of the movements and forms of the body as it made the marks. In these paintings the strokes of color were laid down adjacent to each other creating hypnotic, optically expressive images that are humorous and erotically charged. That is to say that they often seem to be in a state of transition melting and becoming something else. These dynamic images appear to pulse and breathe. The viewer becomes seduced by the clarity, luster and velvety textures of the colors whose constituent forms possess a kind of pure energy allowing every nuance of the stroke to reveal itself as a living creature.
Karin Davie: Unplugged
The term “unplugged” denotes a musician performing live on a stage using instruments without the bells and whistles of a back band or electrical support: nothing but the pure
and simple voice of the human and the instrument. The popular term “unplugged”, translates to suggest something experienced in a natural state, evincing truth, rawness and honesty.
Davie’s new series of paintings, “Between My Eye and Heart” and “Heart’s Guest” parallels with the term ‘unplugged’ in several ways. The most obvious one is a return to a more direct way of working which has allowed her to be more spontaneous in her relationship with the paint and the canvas. In doing so she underscores a sense of the present, as if we are witnessing the painting being made. As viewers we are presented with evidence of the hand and the person who made them. The stroke’s brushiness, drips, irregularities of mark, stops, uneven edges, and rawness contribute to our understanding of Davie’s insistence on placing us as viewers in the here and now.
The significant changes that Davie effected in her recent work has been to reintroduce illusionism, layering, and narrative. In making the strokes tubular she has been able to stress their representational quality within an expanded space, and direct juxtapositions of tonalities and color has allowed her to gain access to more subjective states, thus expanding the emotional range of the work.
In the painting “Between my Eye and Heart“ a thick, tubular dark wine and flesh toned stroke on the lower right side of the painting folds into itself as it climbs up along the right edge, playfully acknowledging the upper corner as it turns and begins a decent towards the center of a space into a somber atmosphere tinged with heat. As if repulsed by some kind of energy, it rapidly shifts direction as it retreats away from us. As we look, we try to name this stroke, to define its nature. It appears simultaneously hyper-active and relaxed, at once a blurred figure careening through space and a long snaking form languidly discovering the limits of its container. It slips by, like a thought on the edge of the mind, resistant to our efforts to define it. Just then, we catch a glimpse of it – we think, though we cannot be certain, for it seems to have changed color, as though it has traveled through zones with vast temperature shifts amid the space, and we are clued into Davie’s understanding that reality is a set of constantly changing conditions. Compelled to look more closely, we find we can nearly trace its entire journey through the canvas. Here, looking means that the eye keeps moving, which is what Davie’s painting encourage. They challenge us to remain active and not to retreat into ourselves or become passive viewers.
The main light source seems to be coming from over our left shoulder as we stand in front of this image and yet light seems to fall from above and to our right, putting a wrinkle in our ability to locate ourselves in relation to the work. We could be backstage in mysterious, inky shadows, looking out over the characters, outside looking in, or possibly even adjacent to or on stage with this animated and vibrant creature.
Looking at these paintings, one becomes aware of a person making the painting, and to imagine what it is like to imagine the space, not like the space of Casper David Friederick landscape, but to conjure it, which is an abstraction of interiority. In the previous series, the idea of pairing image with process resulted in forms that curved and buldged as they mimicked the movement of her body. And in this case, the idea becomes internalized yielding the illusion of one long continuous stroke gracefully, forcefully twisting and looping through a theatrical space defined by the limits of the canvas.
The last, and to my mind to most conceptually complex change is the addition of multiple light sources within one painting, which reflect Davie’s choice to broaden the historical framework to include as a reference such precedents as Titian and Caravaggio. In these paintings, numerous light sources seem located in different planes of the pictorial space, like those found in Titian’s paintings that depict natural light, torch light and reflected light. Here, in Davie’s work there is an allusion to a variety of types of light, such as the neon light of commercial advertisement, street lamps, and natural light, as well as the dim blue and warm red light of lounges and nightclubs used to decrease inhibitions, increase feelings of abandon, or to disguise day for night.
Immediately engaged by the muscular and graphic compositional construction our attention becomes attuned to every aspect of the painting. We follow the brushstroke, for example, that animates the ground and the tubular strokes, the light that activates different curves as it spreads across the image, spills onto and delineates the forms sometimes ending in detached drips, only to return us to the frank, no-nonsense fact of the material. We become aware of the speed of the mark, evidence of the brush, the hairs of the bristle gauging into and tracing grooves into the underpainting below.
As we look, we try to reconcile the opposing feelings of disorientation and thrill that set in and we become increasingly aware that the images we are looking at contain impossibly vast aspects of both fictive and real worlds which stir our inchoate feelings. Davie’s vibrant strokes of color beckon us to keep looking, inviting us to discover more about them and possibly something more about ourselves.