This mini retrospective of the recently deceased Alan Davie (September 28, 1920 – April 5, 2014) presents eight of his works owned by the Tate, each representing a key point in the long and highly unique career of this artist, saxophonist and all round spiritualist.
‘All round spiritualist’ being a deliberately fluffy term; for Davie was uniformly pantheistic in his approach, seeking inspiration in runes, symbols and the mystical which cannot be easily comprehended by our modern Western eyes. In pursuing these spiritual interests entirely independently, the resulting artwork appears alien to and exists outside any structured artistic movement or stylistic tradition. Thus, without helpful explanations one might easily conclude that the artistic realisation of the purely spiritual is – contrary to clichéd and hippyish notions of the ‘beautiful’ Zen – actually very grey and ugly, far from aesthetically enlightening, with imposing, almost violent canvases of vigorous and impulsive strokes. Indeed, the traditional ideas of spirituality through aesthetic beauty (major e.g. being the Renaissance) are revealed to be incidental, nay, unrelated. In this way, Davie sought to connect with “mysterious and spiritual forces normally beyond our comprehension”; his works similarly so.
This makes for a less than pleasurable visual experience, but then Davie illustrates how this is not the point, firmly believing that the ego to be the enemy of true art and as such searching to represent by means of the id, or as much by impulse as possible. Thus we should recognize 1955’s ‘Birth of Venus’, a violent, indistinguishable mess – for there is little cohesion or pattern – as the byproduct of the artistic process, representative of the instinctive method, rather than a singular visual result. Completed shortly after reading Eugen Herrigel’s book Zen in the Art of Archery (1953), the importance given to spontaneity by Zen beliefs have clearly made an impression on Davie’s method, whereby the artist stood over the work laid on the floor, rapidly applying layer upon layer without pause or hesitation. Interestingly, though this method is quick, the length of time that elapsed during its creation indicates the sheer number of layers he must have applied and reapplied, reworking continuously, not travelling towards some preconceived image, but finding spiritual release through his submission to instinct. We must recognize therefore an alternative mode of beauty, manifest in the visualisation of subconscious, intrinsic feeling, in this uniquely Jungian approach to painting.
A shift in focus occurs in later work, returning to representational painting though limited strictly to a universal vocabulary of symbolism, and maintaining the characteristic process of applying innumerable layers of not necessarily corresponding imagery. ‘Entrance for a Red Temple No.1’ of 1960 is shown next to a video of its making; though filled with more legible motifs and pattern, that the resulting painting looks nothing like it did in the video only hints at the many hidden layers that must exist below the surface, applied over the three years of its production. It is more visually coherent and accessible while staying faithful to the spiritual ideal of the automatic method. The depiction of several assorted calligraphic signs, drawing from ancient art and architecture, including the enigmatic ankh symbol of a cross with a loop at the top, attempts to convey the timeless or the universal, being collective of many signs but representative of no specific religion. The result is perplexingly cryptic, evocative of any unnamed place of worship. In bringing to us an image of magic, its symbols deciphered and represented to us via an intermediary, Davie asserts his belief in the artist posited as a shamanic figure.
It is a shame that further elements to Davie’s oeuvre are not explored; a keen jazz musician renowned for free improvisation, this would have fed into the themes of instinctive painting well. Similarly, unlike previous retrospectives which sought to show the original sources for the symbolic content of his work, such a comparison here would be fruitful. Viewed in isolation, given the inaccessible and challenging visual nature of the works, this is not helpful in introducing the new viewer to Davie’s work. It is a shame, as, once grasped, his whole outlook is indeed visionary – a word not lightly bandied around. Perhaps this is down to the speed with which the show had to be mounted following his recent death.
We have some tantalizing snippets however. Some pieces of early jewellery are shown in which we can easily detect his fascination with the universal language of symbols, favouring simple, almost primitive shapes and designs not unlike votive pieces. Similarly, a couple of photographs suggest more fascinating connections and inspiration, including Davie with a Carib Petrograph of ca. 2000 BC in Venezuela. The caption mentions how Davie delighted in the fact that no one has deciphered the ancient Carib Indian rock carving; crucially this informs our understanding of Davie’s quest for the ancient and cryptic and his interest in the eternal power of symbols.
The display is sparse, curated with clear examples of significant points of Davie’s career, a solemn and quietly respectful affair – perhaps fitting for a shaman, the man who has seen the spiritual – leaving the powerful works to speak for themselves. However, to first time viewers unfamiliar with the works and the methodology behind them, (they are deliberately cryptic, after all), it is not an easy introduction. I am not for spoon-feeding visitors, however for paintings that are so relatively obscure to the more common trends of representational art, additional supporting material – such as the fascinating connection with jazz music and travelling – would give viewers grounding to these highly mystical pieces.
Words: Olivia McEwan © Artlyst 2014 Image: Detail Entrance To A Red Temple no#1 courtesy Tate Britain and the artist