The Unobtrusive Brush

Morrison: “The Unobtrusive Brush of Graham Davis”
The Unobtrusive brush of Graham Davis

By Keith Morrison

Graham Davis’s solo exhibition at the Mutual Gallery in Kingston, Jamaica, 2008 was an impressive show by a master painter. Davis’ paintings, as seen then, before and since, explore a significant range of ideas in contemporary art. A landscape and still-life painter, Davis focuses on the inanimate object or scene, where all appear in quietude. His art includes neither people nor animals, nor do the objects in it seem affected by time. Stillness and contemplation is at their essence. Exploration of some of the some factors in Davis’s art may provide insight into his solitary vision

An immediate impression of Davis’ art is his singular use of color, which is pure and fresh. Color so used by a lesser artist could be a vehicle for mere tourist art, but in the paintings of Graham Davis it serves a far more exciting purpose. Davis uses pure color in a way that elevates the art far beyond the local references of the photographs the artist uses. By “pure color” I do not mean primacy, hue, or saturation, but color substituted for the object it describes, whose natural color may seem more “realistic” and whose surface may be characterized by textures and peculiarities more prominent than color. The purity of Davis’ color erases reference from the “realism” of particular surfaces and their textures. In Davis’ work a color serves more as a descriptor of shapes than expression of the character of the objects from which they comes. His color does not describe the “essence” of the object as much as references it. For example, in the painting “Three Boats, Nice” (2008), the color of the boats and the sky are strong yet simplified and stripped of extraneous detail. The colors reference contours of boats and other objects, but hardly shows much that characterizes their literal surfaces. Instead, the colors link as shapes in to form a total abstract composition in spite of the seemingly natural and literal scene. Davis’s use of color brings to mind paintings by Henri Matisse in that the color of both artists seem to ever so subtly “lift” away the object beneath. As in Matisse, Davis’s colors seem to float just slightly from the surfaces of their origin and to create harmony with another, rather than to be enslaved by the surface beneath.

Understanding of Davis’ use of color leads to the realization that the artist’s work is as much about what he has painted as what he has left out. He seems to “paint out” (i.e. erase) details he doesn’t need in his pictures. For example, much seems left out of “Bedroom, Morocco,” (2008), or “Boats in Shadow, Nice” (2008).The drama in has work is not only in what he paints, but the awareness that there are things he has erased. As such, the drama in his work is in large part due to the sense of isolation he has created: isolation of what he has singled out to portray.

Freed from the need to describe the details of their origin, Davis’s forms and colors seem to become like ghost images of the photos from which they came and to unite in abstract tableaux, where emphases of light and dark are realized in unexpected places, where objects that have been flattened out appear to be abstract shapes, and where colors have surprising accents. His art is structurally like visual harmony that becomes like music because of unexpected accents, cadences, and rhythmic structure. Marvelous examples of this may be seen in “Blue Fin, White River,” (2008), where the challenging perception of the boat and its shadow in water from a drama dramatic dual engagement. Or “Rubber Plant” (2008) where the leaf becomes an abstract projection beyond its literal meaning.

Davis’s forms are dramatic in their light and dark contrasts, creating abstract relationships that can appear to be more pronounced than their subjects, as in “Bedroom, Morocco” (2008), or “Cloister Detail, Provence” (2008), where the pattern of the forms express a abstract rhythms. His forms are often composed on the diagonal, although in a subtle fashion, which facilities the two-dimensional silhouettes and other forms, such as in the intimate glimpse up at the detail called “Tuscan Monastery Window” (2008), or the dramatic, zigzag patterns that serve to unfurl the landscape in “Golden Spring Morning

His deft but unobtrusive brush stroke and the relaxed focus of objects and edges he paints create an overall casualness to his paintings, as if the abstract compositions were natural rather than studied. His work seems spontaneous, unassuming and unhurried. Like the American painter Alex Katz, Davis is a master of making abstraction from in the ordinary, through rearrangement of the accents of colors he paints and simplification of forms from which they are made. But whereas Katz’s paintings carry cultural implications and imply the presence of the artist in his social milieu, Davis remains conspicuously absent from his art, which appears to make no social statement at all. Davis the artist remains the observer, never the intruder. He travels the world (Jamaica, Kent, Morocco, Nice, Provence, and Tuscany, to name a few) with the artistic vision of a chronicler, never the intruder, nor the commentator. It is not that his vision is dispassionate, for it is not, but it is culturally unobtrusive. Through his cultural detachment Davis reveals formal compositions irrespective of place.

Intrusion of the artist’s personality is low-key, revealing only an inveterate traveler and what and how sees without adding baggage personal to it. He is the unobtrusive artist with an unbiased social eye. Graham Davis creates the still-life and landscape, irrespective of locality, revealing a universal vision in each of his distinctive paintings.