OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Ian Davis

Acrylic & spray paint on linen

IAN DAVIS's allegorical paintings reveal a suspicion of the hubris embodied in Enlightenment-era notions of progress. Homogeneous hoards of men—anonymous peons, executives and soldiers—congregate in and around architectural and industrial structures that dwarf them. They gather to worship at the altar of Science, Industry and Technology, just as the religious supplicants gather to worship God. The settings include sweeping auditoriums, highway systems, dams, quarries, excavation sites, thus symbolizing the flawed belief that domination and containment of the natural world improves the human condition. Ian's work is included in several public collections, including The Saatchi Gallery in London and Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri. In 2012, he was a New York Foundation for the Arts fellow and an artist-in-residence at The MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. He is represented by Leslie Tonkonow Gallery in New York, where he will have a solo show in March 2014. Ian lives in Saugerties, New  York.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Paintings like Reflecting Pool and Lemons (both 2011) represent nonwhite people, but these pieces are exceptions that prove the rule. The majority of the paintings are populated with droves of white men in business suits and dress shirts. I read this as a very intentional and highly allegorical choice. Can you talk about the conceptual reasoning behind the homogeneity of figures that congregate in your paintings?

Ian Davis: The paintings are highly critical of humanity. I'm displaying humanity in its most vile form. I feel pretty comfortable with portraying these people as white men, since I think they deserve the lion's share of the blame given the subject matter of the work—greed, hubris, willful ignorance—and,  since I'm a white man, perhaps I'm most comfortable criticizing myself. Recently I've been thinking a bit more about the identities of the figures. It has occurred to me that the figures could in some cases just as easily be Asian men. They do all have black hair.

The homogeneity is both a formal and narrative element. I'm not interested in portraying individuals in these paintings. These are about the mass, the herd. This is about the messed up stuff that happens when a bunch of people get together and stop thinking. But I'm also attracted to pattern, and something formally magical happens when you cluster a bunch of people together all dressed alike. The way the figures interlock and interact becomes something else entirely. I keep coming back to painting rooms full of people sitting. There's something mechanical about it. It's dark in an Orwellian way.

You know, I'm a firm believer in mystery. So I hesitate to look too closely at why I'm doing something. I'm content to just find something compelling without examining it too much. When I'm doing a crowd of people and this weird line between figuration and abstraction is being blurred, it just feels appropriate. In 2005 I was at Skowhegan in Maine, and the sculptor Charles Long came by my studio. He talked about doing something and not knowing why. I think he gave me permission, or allowed me to give myself permission to not know what something means. It's not a cop out, but rather a method for getting out of your own way.

Reflecting Pool
Acrylic on linen

OPP: Are the figures in your paintings victims or perpetrators?

Generally, the people aren't really doing anything. Even when they are supposedly playing a participatory role, their main function is to act as a passive mass. Of course there are exceptions to this, but when the figures are active, they are mostly just noticing things or pointing at things. They are reactive, not active. Really they are both perpetrators AND victims, without realizing it. They ARE the problem. They have caused it, and they will be affected by it.

OPP: Pieces like Auditorium (2006), Climate (2009) and Monument (2013) remind me of the countless Nazi Nuremberg Rallies images I have seen. Are you consciously referencing these historical images? What are some points of reference in your work?

I've seen Triumph of the Will, if that’s what you mean. The images in that movie are powerfully scary, but the geometry is incredible. You can see the same geometry in images of soldiers from North Korea and of two thousand Chinese people dancing in synchronicity. It’s in Edward Burtynky's photographs of factory interiors and Busby Berkeley movies.

I'm drawn to images of large groups of people. I like the feeling of endless pattern: this vibrating, radiating thing you get when you really extend something. It happens in Bridget Riley's paintings, too . . . and also in old panoramic photographs. I think it relates to music somehow—this rhythmic, droning, trance-like pattern you get with Jimmy Reed or Booker T & the MG's.

But you know what I kept noticing in Triumph of the Will? In every long shot of an endless row of soldiers, there's always one guy who is a bit too tall. At the moment you notice that, you remember that these are actually people. It changes everything.

Acrylic on linen
60 x 65"

Many of the images you are referencing emphasize the idea of humans as cogs in a system, mindless drones who just play their parts. But the moment when you notice the tall guy is the moment when you remember that we aren’t objects. We have agency—if we choose to use it. Is that the moral message in your work? Or am I reading into it?

ID: It's not really a moral message. Generally speaking, I depict all the elements of a narrative—i.e. a bunch of scientists in lab coats sitting in an auditorium watching a reel-to-reel tape recorder on a stage—but what is actually happening is a mystery. Like De Chirico or Magritte. There's no question about what you're seeing, but why you're seeing it remains unexplained. So when I'm making a painting and there are 500 figures in the same pose with the same clothes on, each one looks different simply because I physically can't do it exactly the same way twice. You start to notice imperfections or variations, and that becomes a way to access the mystery.

OPP: I've read several reviews—one by Roberta Smith for The New York Times and one by Chris Packham for Pitch.com—in which they refer to the "cuteness" of your paintings. These were in no way negative reviews, but I found that word utterly imprecise. The word cute implies a lack of content, which is so obviously not the case. Calling your paintings cute is an imprecise way of commenting on the style. Is your painting style, which is more illustrative than realistic or expressionistic, intentional or intuitive? How does that style support your conceptual concerns?

It bothers me when words like "cute" or "whimsical" or "playful" are used in relation to my work, but what can I do if people misread them? I just figure they haven't looked at them closely. I don't think about it. I just don't care! That probably sounds nasty or something, but I just can't do anything about it. I'm not going to change what I'm doing because somebody called my work "cute."

There's probably something inherent in the way I paint that leads people down that path. Maybe they see a relationship to folk art because of the flatness and patterning. Maybe it's the scale. When I think about how I want my work to look, I think of Bruegel's epic scale, Magritte's deadpan, utilitarian paint handling and LS Lowry's sense of color. It's not a formula, but those are examples of learning from other artists by looking.

The way I paint is descriptive. I'm trying to remove gesture, to paint the way a guy who isn't trying to make art would paint—which is probably impossible. It's both intentional and intuitive. I went to art school but not graduate school. I'm not self-taught, but I wasn't given any instruction at all that led me to paint this way. I arrived at my style by making hundreds of paintings that were derivative of the things I liked looking at, including Orson Welles' films, JG Ballard's novels, Plains Indian Ledger drawings and Baker Overstreet's work. I had to figure out how to make my paintings. I think you have to invent your personal way of making a painting. That seems, to me, to be the point. It has to be your invention.

Acrylic & spray paint on linen
65 x 70"

OPP: One of the most enigmatic and evocative images is Rooftops (2012), in which a series of nearly identical rooftops are filled with hundreds of indistinguishable figures. I can't tell if they are waving for help from an overhead plane, pointing at something in the sky or trying to communicate with each other. The way the image is cropped implies that these rooftops with people on them could go on for miles . . . or forever.  It makes me think of the trope in zombie movies when the humans escape to the roof only to get stuck there with no way out. In your painting, it's like ALL the people are stuck on the rooftops. So, no one's coming to help. What's happening in this image, and what are the pink parts on the surface of the rooftops? Did you have a specific narrative in mind? 

ID: I don’t know if I should say this, but I don't consider Rooftops a very successful painting. The idea initially was to make a painting in which all the figures were reacting to something off in the distance, something outside the picture plane. I was thinking about a personal experience I had being on a rooftop in New York on September 11th. The pink shapes are supposed to be puddles of water, reflecting an acid pink-colored sky, which could indicate either something apocalyptic or a really epic sunset. I know that this painting was unsuccessful because you had to ask me what the pink parts were. I tried to convince myself that I could pull off painting the reflections in the puddles pink. And you're not the first person to ask me about this. If somebody had come into my studio while I was making this and thrown a drink into my face, I might have reconsidered. I might have painted the puddles blue instead.

Acrylic on linen
60 x 65"

OPP: Well, I respectfully disagree that it is unsuccessful. It’s one of my favorites because not knowing what the pink was kept me musing about the narrative. It evoked that mystery you've referred to. Do you have a favorite painting of your own?

Skeptics is one I really like, because I just made it. I didn't sweat and worry over it. I like the ones that happen easily, but some are a lot more pleasant to make than others. Wee Small Hours has nice light in it. I wanted to make an all blue painting. The color palette is based on a Frank Sinatra album cover. I’m pleased with the end result, but it wasn't very fun to make. It took about seven months, and that is just so long to look at one painting. Nothing should take that long. By the end, I never wanted to see the thing again. If I feel that I'm steadily making progress on a painting, then I'm enjoying it. If I'm dealing with endless weeks of doing and redoing and not really seeing any development, then work doesn't feel like it has anything to do with making art.

OPP: You’re in the middle of preparing for your next solo show at Leslie Tonkonow (New York) in March 2014, correct? Will this show have any surprises in it? Any changes in direction or content?

Right now I'm trying to figure out how to make my next show. I've been getting in my own way a lot lately, just being a bit too aware of whether things are enough of a progression to justify their existence . . . self-defeating things like that. I'm just finishing up a big painting of Bohemian Grove that depicts a bunch of industrialists looking at themselves in vanity mirrors. I'm trying to figure out how to paint things that aren't solid—things that move—like plumes of smoke, lava and fire. I hope I figure something out soon. It happens really slowly. There's always a long pause between thinking about what I want to try and getting up the nerve to actually try it.

To view more of Ian's work, please visit iandavisart.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and existential significance of participating in mediated culture in her embroidery, video, sculpture and collage works. She received her MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2006), where she will begin teaching in Spring 2013, and is currently a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT Residency in Chicago. Notable exhibitions include Losing Yourself in the 21st Century (Maryland Art Place, Baltimore), MP3 (The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago), Please Stand By: Stacia Yeapanis + Readymade (Baang & Burne Contemporary, New York), Over and Over Again (BOLT Project Space, Chicago).