Saturday, October 16, 2010

John Davis: Presence, NGV Australia

I’ve been an admirer of John Davis’ sculptures since I came across a dusty black and white book in my first year of art school, and until his survey show, Presence, at the National Gallery Victoria, my enthusiasm had been based on mostly black and white photographic documentation of his delicate works.  John Davis’ sculptures are surely a museum conservator’s nightmare – constructions of twigs, paper, cotton, tied loosely together or bonded with bitumen – which is probably the reason why I’d never seen more than one of his works in person before this show.

Evolution of a Fish: Traveller (1990)
Repetition and an emphasis on material and process are consistent themes across the exhibition.  With the dramatic exception of the few sculptures from the late 1960s, which are surprisingly hard-edged and made from metal and fibreglass, his works indicate an element of play in their careful construction. His later forms are made from predominantly organic materials, and embrace an earthy and limited colour scheme – a reflection of Davis’ consistent exploration of environmental themes that started in the early 1970s.  Most of the works are wall or floor-based, and the white walls of the gallery provide an interesting contrast to the crooked grid lines that occur in numerous works.  This tension between the imperfections of the natural materials and the enforced construction of geometry is what makes Davis’ works so engrossing, and is perhaps also illustrative of the contradictory way in which humans perceive and interact with the natural environment.

Serendipitously, I visited the exhibition just after viewing the Tim Burton show at ACMI, and as a result Davis’ fish sculptures, which I’ve always considered quite serious pieces, started to look quite comical and animated with a monstrous streak.  While I doubt Davis had similar intentions to Burton when creating his fish characters, I enjoy ‘seeing’ this very different side to the Evolution of the Fish series. 

Tree Piece (1973), Sculpturscape

The show is set out chronologically, although I enter at the ‘wrong’ end because the start is strangely accessed through another exhibition, not the foyer.  Nevertheless, like a resume, sometimes it’s better to start with more recent activity - such as Davis’ ubiquitous fish sculptures - and work back.  My personal interest in Davis’ sculptures is in this early period of his career when he participated in the Mildura Sculpture Triennials, making site-related environmental works in the scrubby floodplains surrounding the Mildura Gallery.  Unfortunately, the significance and influence of the site and events, in particular the 1973 ‘Sculpturscape’ exhibition, are not even mentioned in the exhibition’s didactic texts.  The photographic documentation of Tree Piece (1973), where Davis wrapped a number of gum trees with various materials, is not attributed to any specific exhibition, despite Sculpturscape’s influence on not only Davis’ practice but also on the early development of Australian environmental sculpture, Installation and Site-specific Art in general.  Nevertheless, Presence, is an excellent and inclusive survey of Davis’ three-decade practice, and a welcome opportunity to view such fragile works in person; and the colour catalogue that accompanies the exhibition will also be a welcome addition to the existing, predominantly black and white illustrated publications on his work.

John Davis: Presence is at the NGV Australia, 6 August - 26 October 2010

image sources: 

Catalano, Gary. An Intimate Australia: the landscape and recent Australian art. Sydney: Hale and Ironmonger, 1985