By KURT MCVEY, May 2019
There’s a prevailing misconception in the New York art world currently involving a false and often forced binary that supposedly divides contemporary art into two camps: the overtly topical and convenient escapism. This of course fails to acknowledge a vast and mighty ocean of ideas, emotions and all manner of experience brought forth by the artist that might not be directly tied to political affiliation, race, class, nationality or gender.
When an artist does something seemingly new, fresh or even slightly inventive with paint on canvas, that alone can be cause for celebration, and by extension, ancillary written documentation during an otherwise politically contentious time.
Paul Davies’ The Roaring Daze is one such show, currently up at Olsen Gruin Gallery until June 16th on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Davies, a Sydney, Australia native now living in Los Angeles, pulls his visual references heavily from legendary if not infamous architectural structures, which he personally documents using digital photography and later (often years later) renders up in his large-scale, pulpy (in the full Tarantino version of the word) acrylic on canvas paintings. The show also features one-off, sunset-pastel, long-exposure photograms as well as his minimal, hand-painted, laser cut sculptures.
The exhibition, with all its chalky, bleached, bleeding whites, pinks, blues and yellows, which continually disrupt our perception of positive and negative space-background and foreground-comes across like the perfectly timed, painterly, late-Spring lovechild of Bret Easton Ellis and Joan Didion. The show is a crisp but coagulated chlorine and cocaine riddled poolside David Hockney love letter to California and Davies’ native Australia, past, present and future; each art object, a highly compressed memory tesseract from a reliably unreliable narrator. The subject matter, the composition; initially “orthodox” to the eye, after further inspection, begins to reveal an ever-clear, dreamlike unreality.
Regardless of medium or scale, each piece stands as a deliberate fusion or deeply layered composite of elements from his mother country-mostly out of place flora and fauna-and modern, mid-20th century American architecture and design elements to which the artist (and assuredly countless viewers-turned-voyeurs as well) has a personal and powerful connection. Three Stories, a large-scale acrylic on canvas triptych, now the largest commission in SoHo House history (after The Roaring Daze it will relocate to its permanent home at the SoHo House DTLA Warehouse), is a trippy collage of four mid-century homes in Southern California. The preeminent model for Three Stories (a fun play on words) is the architect and Frank Lloyd Wright disciple, Rudolph Schindler’s Fitzpatrick-Leland House, located in the Hollywood Hills.
In the late spring of 2017, Davies exhibited his work-also paintings, sculptures and photograms-in the home, which is managed by MAK Center for Art and Architecture.
Schindler’s 1937 design is a fluid, adaptive structure (a series of interlocking volumes rotating on a central axis) fit for various landscapes and geographical terrain. That being said, its aesthetic has become synonymous with a sort of Burt Reynolds ala Boogie Nights (or Lebowski’s Jackie Treehorn) meets Ron Burgundy vibe mixed with Raymond Chandler’s brand of West Coast neo-noir intrigue. Over time, and with lived-in history and cultural marination, architecture can convey an idea, emotion or feeling as distinctly as, say, a painting, an idea MAK seemed to embrace with their 2017 meta museum experiment, which saw Davies activate the space from within and within again, like a painterly Hitchcock infinity mirror. It’s a commentary on how we activate spaces and spaces activate us in a disorienting, spiraling, snowballing non-linear hyper-loop.
In 2016, Davies completed a residency at The Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture Phoenix. It’s no surprise then that the famed architect’s Fallingwater House, now a National Historic Landmark built in 1935 and located in southwestern Pennsylvania, makes its way into the paintings, East West Coast 1&2 (2019).
The house was built for the powerful Pittsburgh merchant Edgar J Kaufman, who legally married his first cousin Liliane Sarah Kaufmann in 1909. On the evening of September 7, 1952, Liliane “overdosed” on sleeping pills. The story goes that instead of taking her right to the nearest hospital, a paranoid Edgar drove her two and a half hours to Pittsburgh, which ruined any chance of pumping her stomach on time. This apparent suicide, and its familial repercussions, has lent the house a sort of pervasive darkness. On an interesting artistic note, the massive bronze doors of the crypt that would later house this couple, located upriver from Fallingwater, were designed by Alberto Giacometti.
For his paintings, Davies remixes the visual narrative, inserting fauna from Australia and a kidney shaped pool (as seen in Three Stories) in place of the natural stream, which seems to resemble a classic painter’s palette lined with celluloid film. In Three Stories, the sky, a different color than what we see in the pool’s reflection, bleeds over the edges of the palm trees as if it were as in need of attention as an aging, still-aspiring actress.
Davies’ exhibition title is a play on Henry Lawson’s 1889 gold rush poem, “The Roaring Days,” which was pulled from the larger collection, In the Days When the World Was Wide. The artist is drawing clear parallels between the mid 19th century gold rush that in many ways entranced and inspired Australians and transplant Californians alike, and how Los Angeles continues to lure wide-eyed, fame and fortune hungry actors, screenwriters, musicians, celebrity pastors, tech gurus, wellness warriors and fine artists to the promise land. The title of Lawson’s collection also shows how creatives recognize and perhaps lament the ever-shrinking size of the globe. Davies could similarly be lamenting the ever-decreasing space for enduring imagery in an oversaturated digital, social media landscape, and how that could pollute and cramp the unconscious mind. What images, what memories endure for us? What stands out amidst all the noise? What moments, memories, structures or spaces do we pollute with our own darkness, our own light?
The work of Paul Davies, which tastefully fills a close to sold out show at Olsen Gruin, much like the architectural structures he utilizes as references, will stand the test of time. The works are emotionally dense and existentially fraught, while on the surface, they’re as light and fun as a late June pool party. In short, they’re great paintings, free from the shallow millennial cynicism seen in the latest Whitney Biennial, but tapping directly into the problematic underbelly of the increasingly nebulous and distant American Dream. WM