Whitehot Magazine

An Interview with Painter Jay Davis

Jay Davis at Triumph and Disaster Gallery, Montgomery Alabama


Brooklyn based painter Jay Davis has exhibited internationally over the last two decades and is included in major collections worldwide, both private and public. Davis’ exhibition you’re sending me mixed signals is currently on view at Triumph & Disaster in Montgomery, Alabama. Davis discusses with Caroline Taylor his recent work, and exhibiting off the beaten path in Alabama.

The exhibition in Alabama shows, for the first time, Davis’ new body of work. These are paintings that invite viewers into a spatially ambiguous environment – where he or she finds a connection, or nostalgia to images and even color palettes, drawing on the viewer’s memory to create a narrative. Logos – Aquafina, Doritos, even the Coors Light mountains take the viewer on a journey at once familiar and fantastical. 

Caroline Taylor: Thinking about your previous works – explain the jump from there to this current body of work.

Jay Davis: This work distills some of the elements and ideas from past bodies of work in an effort to make things more concise. The previous paintings have much more complicated spaces that oscillate between landscape, interior or still life, while these new paintings have much more ambiguous, yet in some ways delineated, sense of place.

I’m forming conversations between two, three, four, or five objects (I say objects very loosely—they can be logos, dissected forms, shadows…) in a much more direct way than I was before and placing them in enigmatic settings: infinite ethereal spaces, or combined with optical illusions, or on flat surfaces that refer back to themselves as paintings by collapsing substance and ground. 

CT: Some of the images, logos – Doritos, Coors Light, Aquafina...

JD: And I have a new Tropicana one.

CT: There is a sense of a nostalgia in these images/objects?

JD: This body of paintings I showed in Alabama was kind of an “American” show – the signifiers are things that are relevant to being born and raised in the US. Most of the logos, everything in the painting, really, are chosen because they are elements of lasting collective memory, things that have some tie to an established cultural identity, which also provide an entry point to the work.

If someone asked you to imagine and draw the logo of Doritos, Tropicana or Aquafina, you may not be able to, but because it is so subconsciously ingrained, even when presented as a fragmented version, it can be pieced together as familiar to the viewer. And because they have such a strong presence of form I’m using these logos paired with other timeless identifiable objects- scissors, a cutting board, a grapefruit. I’m also thinking of their language resting in the object’s place as a way in which the logos and other kinds of identifiers operate.  

CT: How do you look at what you are doing vs other things going on in Contemporary Art, particularly Post-Internet? 

JD: Strangely, one of the big motivations for the development of these paintings was the fact that they look great on Instagram. I realized that people didn’t know what the fuck they were looking at – they’re perfectly square and no one could tell if they were a digital prints, or collage with digital attributes, so I decided to play that up.

A lot of the paintings in the show use really cheesy techniques that draw on early basic Photoshop or Internet techniques where digital technology was trying to imitate how “real” objects worked- things like Mac Draw, or drop shadows, or drag-and-drop Desktops with folders and trash cans- basically I’m taking the analog-to-digital back again to analog.

I’m approaching and handling a lot of the images in these paintings to look as though I’m pulling straight from Google, printing out an image, and putting that on the painting – but I’m not actually doing that.

CT: You’re actually painting it.

JD: Yes, actually painting it. They are all painted by hand. And I enjoy doing that, and seeing people looking at the paintings in person, not online, and trying to deconstruct them. People seem to find a lot of mystery not only in how the images relate to each other, but also in how the work was made. 

CT: They can’t figure it out at all.

JD: Right. They can’t figure out if I’ve printed something, if it’s two paintings on top of each other, etc. But in doing that, the paintings have to be flawless, almost trompe l’oeil.

Jay Davis at Triumph and Disaster Gallery, Montgomery Alabama

CT: So, no pressure!

JD:  Yeah, exactly – no mistakes allowed. The second I make one mistake on an object, the mystique falls apart.

CT:  Tell me a little about the process of making the paintings?

JD: My process includes a lot of waiting time, so I’m always working on several paintings at once. Right now I’ve got about 15 in progress.

None of the paintings are planned out fully in advance. They start with an ambiguous, abstract background, a loosely evocative space that at the same time can’t refer to anything else, and I pull from one of my subjects I’m been ruminating on. Then the painting builds from that, intuitively. I’ve constantly got about 30 ideas for paintings in my head, and they make it into the works as they get going.

Sometimes I’ll have a great week with a painting, and then get to a point where I don’t know how that conversation is going to continue, so I take a break and step back for a bit. So it’s always a back and forth. 

CT: So the show is obviously in Alabama…

JD: It is! 

CT: Which is a little off the beaten path. You’ve shown internationally – how was it to show in Alabama?

JD: I enjoyed going to Montgomery and loved showing down there – I’m from the South originally. Any chance to show to a different audience is great. Down in Alabama it was a nice space and a new community for me. I also lectured at the University of Alabama, and did a small show there, which was really fun.

CT: The reaction at the opening was extremely positive.

JD: Yeah, for sure. I think a lot of people enjoyed being able to connect with the work. In a way these paintings have the ability to turn the viewer into a subject. Becoming an active participant – I think that is the purpose of a lot of art, but these in particular do that more directly. I think people enjoy seeing the elements in the work that aren’t outside of their reality, a pop sensibility in which their own day-to-day becomes the reality of the art. 

Jay Davis’ “you’re sending me mixed signals” is on view at Triumph & Disaster, Montgomery, AL until January 2015. triumphdisastergallery.com



Caroline Taylor


Caroline Taylor is an independent curator and private art advisor based in New York and Alabama. She has curated exhibitions internationally and currently manages Triumph & Disaster, a contemporary art project space in Montgomery, Alabama. She holds a BFA in painting from Pratt Institute and is a former member of the Deutsche Bank Collection curatorial team. caroline@carolinetaylor.com

view all articles from this author