Stylistic distinctiveness can sometimes function as a tombstone as much as a landmark for an artist’s historical contribution. The market and critical accounts can, in effect, delimit an artist’s contribution to the history of art and effectively force their vision into a tunnel defined by commercial success on one hand, and formulaic art making on the other. This may have been the case for Ronald Davis, who won early recognition for his hard edge geometric “snap line” cast resin paintings, and was thus catapulted to the fore of stylistic reactions against the rigors of Greenbergian dogma. For Davis, illusion and the intricate ambiguities of linear perspective were returned to the realm of the painterly; albeit in a much less Kantian, a lot less fixed application than would have been possible prior to the rise of the New York School. Since that time Davis has moved on and re-grouped with works that bounce between the overtly painterly and willfully hard-edge, occasionally managing these poles with purpose and vigor. This small survey draws from diverse series in order to allow viewers to observe firsthand the technical and stylistic oscillations of this protean artist over a thirty-year period.
The contours of Davis’ early work can be seen in “Tall Beam” (1983, Cel-Vinyl acrylic and dry pigment on canvas, 112 1/4 x 79 3/8 inches), from the “Snapline Series.” This painting has been characteristically subdivided into 3D vectors which are then built up with layers of watery color, creating a tension between the two-dimensional surface of the painting itself and the painted illusion of the three-dimensional forms that emerge.
A shift in his interest towards the haptic and gestural is evident in “Brown Nebula” (1983, Cel-Vinyl acrylic on linen on board, 24 1/8 x 48 1/8 inches), from the “Novaxy Series.” Here the paint is literally splattered across the canvas, substituting the precise directional perspective line with a jagged crisscross. Davis eliminates any vestige of a narrative on which to hang an interpretation, drawing upon his abstract expressionist history and making the raw optical nature of the synthetic color the central formal component.
The hybridization of these concerns occurs in “Heptagon Ring” (1983, Cel-Vinyl acrylic on canvas on board, 30 x 36 inches), from the “Splatter Series.” The randomness of the crimson and blue jet sprays entering the canvas from the sides comes into playful contrast with the calculate geometry of a small hexagonal conic section wafting above the picture plane. The apparent contradiction between types of pictorial space seems to be precisely what Davis is weighing.
Of his work from the last few years, Davis writes: “I suggest that these works are seeking a new visual epistemology that is serious, moral, and spiritual, deviating from the self-indulgent, ironic, post-modern, and politically correct painting and non-painting (remember, painting is dead), or scumbling of recent years, and place them in the tradition of the excellent abstract works of Abstract Expressionism (Pollock, Still, Newman, and Morris Lewis to name a few of the greats that continue to inspire me). Constitutionally, I remain a geometrician and an expressionist.” (This statement is quoted from “When the illusion is lost, the art is hard to find . . .” by Ronald Davis, originally printed in the “one-sheet” accompanying the exhibition “Ronald Davis: Recent Abstractions, 2001 – 2002,” published by School of Art and History, Denver University, The Victoria H. Myhren Gallery, September, 2002.)
We can appreciate Davis’ dedication to painting as the act of making color visible, even as he moves beyond the critical accounting that informed the historical status of his earliest output. His adherence to the truth(s) of his method(s), rather than the frozen moment of a popularly identifiable signature style is admirable for its integrity. Nomadic shifts, technical guile and adhesion to beauty are a few key features emerging in the current painting paradigm that are central to Davis’ work and process, a self-styled “inside outsider.”