Notes on Karin Davie
“A painter’s painter” is a phrase that turns up somewhere every dozen reviews or so but no polls are ever taken among painters asking them who qualifies?” When it comes right down to it, critics and not painters are the ones most likely to use so loose, yet oddly particular, a turn of phrase. And this makes sense, for while painters are well versed and comfortable discussing another artist’s work in terms of pure process, writers tend to blanch a wee bit when placed in the position of making a linguistic assessment of an intangible, i.e.; the meaning of a brush stroke.
Which brings me to the paintings of Karin Davie. An impressive new series of her works were recently on show at Site Santa Fe, New Mexico. Large, colorful, raucous and sensuous, Davie’s paintings rely on a tightly blended quartet of formal qualities to convey their meaning; composition, translucency, color, and brushwork. As with any minimalist recipe, none of the elements can be removed or even watered down, but that does not mean that they have equal weight, either.
Compositionally, Davie works the edges. Her swooping lines careen from side to side, mostly staying inside the picture plane but frequently veering off the canvas – only to reappear a few inches later. Because the technique plays so strongly on the ambiguity between willfulness and loss of control, the effect on the viewer can be unsettling; feelings of intransigence and anxiety are apt to be aroused in equal measure. Indeed, the closest visual equivalent might be found in the experience of staring at tire skid marks on a highway as they crisscross the yellow lines a number of times before leaving the road altogether, becoming the unmistakable dark black parallel lines that culminate with a car fatally merged with a tree. You can’t help but wonder staring at a Davie painting – was she hitting the brakes,or speeding up?
Her color offers little by way of hint. Somewhat reminiscent of the palette of Judith Linhares, an early mentor, Davies fields a mixed palette of predominantly bright, sunny colors, a full spectrum of blues, reds, and oranges, deep greens and yellows. Woven in, occasionally, one also finds a range of low notes comprised of midnight blues, ivory blacks, and burnt umbers. It could be that these darker colors serve to intensify the brightness of the lighter ones, and in part they do. But they also create an undeniable undertow, pulling us into far murkier waters with little warning. Extended viewing reveals that even the brightest colors have an oddly turned, spoiled quality, akin to a bouquet of flowers that have been in their vase a day longer than they had ought. The net effect is to create, ever so slightly, a seeping melancholia.
Despite these elements, one would be hard pressed to describe Davie’s work as depressing – her brush strokes will not allow it. Exuberant and graceful, the artist’s brush work is the kind possible only when an artist paints with her entire body engaged. It is hard to think of antecedents for this kind of brush handling other than perhaps the late de Kooning’s, which calls for a brief digression.
At the time of the brilliant show of those late de Kooning’s curated by Robert Storr at the MOMA in 1997, many in the art world questioned aloud whether de Kooning had painted the works on display and, if he had, whether or not his advanced Alzheimer’s condition made them “not” de Kooning’s. Gallerist Charles Cowles was among that latter group. Standing with me at the opening in front of one of the works in the very last room, a giant white painting with long, powerful red strokes winding diagonally across the surface, I asked Charlie, “Do you think that he actually painted these?” “Yes,” he replied. “Well,” I asked, “regardless of de Kooning’s condition, can you think of any better paintings painted in the last ten years?” He paused and said, “No.” The point being that certain things cannot be faked, any more than their meaning can be ignored. Simply put, the late de Kooning paintings are just too good technically and emotionally for anyone other than a master to have painted them and, medical evidence not with standing, the paintings themselves prove beyond a doubt that while de Kooning the everyday person may have ceased to exist, de Kooning the painter had not.
This is not to claim that Davie is on par with the late de Kooning. What I am asserting is that certain aspects of technique may simultaneously reveal many truths while at the same time sailing clear over the heads of many less technically savvy viewers. Davie’s brush strokes are a prime example. Gracefully to the point of appearing effortless, they pile up in shimmering bands of color that traverse monumental lengths with unflagging intensity. Just how ambitious these brush strokes are, however, might best be illuminated by some basic measurements – in an 84″ x 108″ painting like “Pushed, Pulled, Depleted & Duplicated #7”, 2002-3, a deep blue-black line makes its way from top to bottom six times as it completes its journey from left to right across the canvas. To be clear, as with all of Davie’s lines this stripe was not physically created with a single loaded brush, but it was painted in such a way as to appear that was, and it is over 40 feet long. This is typical for Davie, and she has painted much longer ones. For instance, the deepest red stripe in “Pushed, Pulled, Depleted & Duplicated #2”, 2002, is close to 75 feet long. As with the others, though this stripe was not created with a single stroke, the impression of continuity has a tactile verisimilitude;despite its considerable elegance, it is hard won.
What information can be found in marks like these? Certainly, the abstract content can only be gleaned by each individual viewer – that is part of the excitement of abstract art. However, the physical content is a different matter: insights can be deduced from process. Some painters paint with their wrist, others paint using their whole arm, or their arm and their upper body; Davie’s paintings require the use of her entire body. They could not be painted while sitting, or even while standing still; Davie’s paintings require her to move back and forth, up and down, to and fro. In working wet as she does, she must scoop up massive dollops of viscous paint on her brush and apply it in a series of rapid gestures over exceedingly large areas. While she may depend on improvisation, she has little space for indecision; fluidity of this magnitude is only possible through intense concentration. In short, each Davie painting is a glistening, high fidelity record of the dance she choreographed in order to make it.
Karin Davie recently exhibited six paintings in a solo exhibition this summer at Sites Santa Fe, NM, curated by Robert Storr. She is represented by Mary Boone, NY.