Jack Davidson




























































































The following interview is derived from several months of emails and phone calls between Jack and John Zurier.

John Zurier: Let's start off with a little bit about your background. You are from Aberdeen and have been living in Barcelona since 2001, but you spent many years in New York.

Jack Davidson: I studied painting in Aberdeen, Scotland from 1977-81 after a two-year, ambivalent attempt at studying law. At the end of the course I was offered a postgraduate year. I remember writing a list of pros and cons to help me figure out whether to accept it or not. The primary reason why I chose not to accept it—and I'm not saying I'd make the same decision today—was that I wanted to know if I was going to continue making art outside the cocooned confines of an art institution. I was 23 and I felt I'd already stayed too long in the education system. And I was desperate to move to London. So in ’82 I moved south.
London was a bit of a party and I wasn't making much art at all. In ’83 I went to New York on vacation and was so enamored of the place I spent the last few days looking for a job, planning to stay on if anybody employed me. Nobody did and I went back to London. I finally moved to New York in ’86. My time in London was pre-YBA and the art world was very different then to what it is now. You often needed an invitation to get into openings. It was difficult to meet other artists. Meanwhile, within a month of being in New York, someone I was working with invited me to go with him to visit a friend's studio—and it turned out his friend was Rauschenberg! I was working infrequently as an art mover and was really broke so my first paintings in New York were silver radiator paint on old wrapping blankets.
In many respects my real art education happened in New York. I was art-handling alongside other artists from all over the States and Europe who talked about art and artists I had never heard of. I was seeing and handling art in galleries, museums and collectors' homes that normally I would never have had access to. My first show was a group painting show at White Columns in 1993, curated by Bill Arning.

JZ: Silver radiator paint on packing blankets sounds pretty great. Did you know Steven Parrino's work back then?

JD: I didn’t. All I remember seeing at that time (1986-87) were people like Sherrie Levine, Meyer Vaisman and Peter Halley. I was completely unprepared for such work and didn’t have a clue what to think of it—or even worse—how to respond to it. It reminds me of that bit in the David Bowie “Thin White Duke” documentary. It’s the 1974 U.S. Diamond Dogs tour and Bowie’s in the back of a limousine, drinking a carton of milk. They ask him how he feels about being in the States. He looks at his milk and says there’s a fly in it and he feels just like that fly, soaking up everything around him. I was going through a not dissimilar process.

JZ: We were talking on the phone the other day about how long it can take to see what is actually happening in the work. How did these new gouache paintings come about?

JD: A couple of years back I did some collages using print-outs of previous paintings which I'd cut up into triangles. The obvious result, which I had willfully managed to ignore in the planning stage, was that the new images were all about a diagonal axis, and I didn't find that very interesting at the time. I also felt there was something mad cow disease-like in making art out of art in that way, if you know what I mean. So I shelved them. Anyway, last August I was looking around for a project to do out in the country and I came upon them again.
This time around that same emphasis on the diagonal was the thing that actually attracted me to them, the idea that the diagonal line underpins the composition, even though in some cases it is broken, or only implied and completed by the mind's eye. I was also attracted by the idea that what I previously hadn't found interesting was that which I now found interesting. It's about how our opinions and the rules and regulations we set up in the studio to help us work, and define our work, are constantly mutating. And maybe it's about expectations too. Perhaps I'd originally hoped the collages would be something other than what they could be. And I was attracted to the idea of working in a series because that hasn't been my usual work process for quite some time now.
So when we talk about how long it takes to see what is actually happening I guess we're really only talking about the process of time itself. However that doesn't exclude the fact that the collages were the same when I dug them out last summer as when I made them a couple of years previously, so what is actually happening, and what it takes an even longer time for me to see, are the changes in me.

JZ: I know, some kind of internal shift has to happen. I always liked what Philip Guston said: “Five years ago you wiped out what you are about to start tomorrow.” I don't think he meant that we get better, or looser, or freer, but that it’s about acceptance. We can now accept what we couldn't or wouldn't let ourselves accept before.

JD: That's a great quotation from Guston. I don't know whether it's about acceptance or not. Sometimes something crops up that I don't have a reference for, so I don't know what to do with it. It doesn't fit within the ongoing dialogue between painting and myself. It isn't its time. That five years later that same thing reappears? Well we, painting and I, we're now different entities and are having a different conversation, albeit on the same topic. If we weren't, that would be troubling. I like to think that what Guston is making reference to is the idea that, although I change and my way of making art changes, I'm always trying to arrive at the same core. You're right though, we don't get better, or looser, or freer. I'd say we just get different.
By nature I throw out, I'm the opposite of a packrat. Living in different countries, and a series of precarious studio rentals in New York City haven't helped. I want to put in a word here for Kim Jones who once took me to task for throwing out work. Without his advice the original collages would have been long gone.

JZ Do you mean Kim Jones, the Mudman?

JD: The same. My first day of work on an art-moving truck was with Kim. He's a phenomenal artist, and though he'd probably be surprised to hear it, he has been a big inspiration to me. I still think about his show at John Weber Gallery in the late ’90’s.

JZ: You know, seeing your last two shows, I wouldn’t really think of you as an artist who works in series. In both of them you had a wide range of sizes and scales with a lot of formal invention within those groupings of paintings. But this project seems to be a departure in other ways too. Am I right then in thinking there is something new for you in these paintings?

JD: I always used to work in series, and when I'd worked each idea through to the end I'd be apoplectic trying to come up with what to do next. It was a very stressful way to work. For some time now I've worked with the idea of the autonomy of each painting. As you know, the imagery all comes from outside, from what I see around me. I may sometimes make a couple of versions using the same image but that's about it. What we have here is definitely a series. I don't think I can deny that. So maybe what's happening is I'm allowing something else back in. Maybe working in series can happily coexist with the other way. Maybe it doesn't have to be either/or. Nowadays I find it's easier to leave doors open. In the past I would have decried them as escape routes for the faint-hearted.
I think there is something new for me in these paintings. I've done some pieces developing on from them and something's coming of it, but I'm not really clear yet on what that something may be. Nevertheless I keep going back to them.

JZ: I love how the ruled pencil lines make a sharp cut across the painted surface, especially in the one where they cross like an “X.” It makes me think of the folded flaps on the back of an envelope. And in the ones where the pencil disappears into the paint I get a sense of them being almost reversible, like the images on playing cards. But in both there's a hard played against a soft, the straight line against the wobbly edges of the shapes. It brings the brushwork even more forward, don't you think?

JD: It's always great to hear someone else's response to the work. I love other readings, which help me understand what I'm trying to do. And it can be agreeing with those readings as much as disagreeing with them that is helpful to me. My approach to painting is pretty much intuitive and my art school education was provincial and old school. Painters didn't talk about their work. When I moved to London, and later to New York, I really felt like I had corn growing out of my ears—the complete country bumpkin. I'm saying this because one of my first reactions to these pieces was, “Oh, I should have erased the pencil lines.” We were taught that painters drew with a brush, or at worst charcoal, but never with a pencil. So I love what you say about the lines. It makes me see them differently. And it makes me see that all these years later I still have stuff to unlearn when I thought I was through with all that already.
I mentioned to you the other day my aversion to the painterly (in my work) and my lack of facility with paint. I very quickly butt up against the limits of my technique. Someone said that that’s where things start to get interesting, and I like to think that’s true. What I've been trying to do lately is just let the paint be paint. Obviously I do have a say in it —it's not total submission. But I shy away from the simulacra of paint and painting. I was making five or six of these paintings in an afternoon and willfully not thinking about how they looked. At the time they did seem too painterly to me but I tried to ignore that and let them be. However, I was very conscious about letting the outside edge find itself and not making it too regular. That was important.
I like that about the hard/soft thing causing the brushwork to come forward and I certainly hadn't thought about it. When we're painting we're making a lot of decisions very quickly, which almost reduce to a series of yeses and noes. And it's all done in our heads. And then it's finished when it looks right.

JZ: I think the speed of them, that is, that they were made quickly and over a short period of time is very important. It helps bypass thought and the voices in the head. I don't share your allergy to painterly painting, but I do feel that with abstraction too much painterly skill is a problem. Your touch just gets the job done. It's unlike painterly bravura, which says, “Look at me!” These pieces are so direct and very immediate. They have a freshness and spontaneity about them, a very relaxed feeling that I like a lot. I like the balance of precision and ease.

JD: I'm thinking about how the drawing in my work is important—perhaps not so much in the case of this project—but the idea of tension; that in such reductive work everything is magnified for better or worse, how the composition has to hold everything in place. In the early ’90’s I made basically black and white paintings verging on horror vacui, which were all about chaos. I wanted them to seem like they exploded in on themselves, that there be nowhere for the eye to rest. I quickly found out I couldn't paint chaos by painting chaotically. Quite the reverse. Similarly, I can’t paint spontaneous by painting spontaneously. I don't mean that I measure out the drawing or that I use tape or a straight edge. I don’t. The drawing is done with a brush and by eye so the trace of the hand and the slip of the eye are always present. Also, I've recently gone back to working the paintings flat on a table so that I remain at arm’s length from them and don't lose myself in getting it “right”. I believe that's what gives them that easy, spontaneous look you mention, although it's neither easily nor spontaneously achieved. The tension is in the interrelation of the few elements involved —form and colour —and how they relate to the edge.

JZ: Tell me about your color. Color seems to be the primary aspect of all your work. Do the colors here come from a source or reference outside the paintings?

JD: In this project I didn’t want to be detained thinking about colour. So I more or less used the ones in the original collages. Again, I was trying not to think too much and just get something down on paper. The collages were very stiff and formal (as in “sit up straight at the table” formal) and I wanted to make them not that to see if there was anything else there.
Colour certainly is the first thing that one encounters in the work. Often my colour choices do come from external references. I’ll see an interesting combination of colours and want to use it. I also get obsessed with certain colours. I use pink a lot. And Veronese green has been a favourite for a while. Recently there has been a lot of yellow in the paintings too. I tend to work straight from the tube, relying on a minimum of underpainting to come through, often almost by inference. I like the colour to sit up on the canvas and mixing it too much muddies and flattens it. Getting the colours to behave together can involve a lot of trial and error and a painting can quickly become tired and over-worked looking.

JZ: Ever since Kandinsky, it has been almost a cliché to talk of color in musical analogies, but I am really curious about your love of music and your work, and how it links to your color and your ideas on abstraction. I see you as belonging to a Pop inflected street-smart abstraction or sensibility, and I know that you have often used song titles for paintings and your exhibitions. Tell me about your involvement with music.

JD: Nowadays Kandinsky's colour theory does tend to conjure up Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophists. In an old Bomb magazine interview Joe Fyfe did with Stephen Mueller, Stephen said, “I do think that painters are predominantly influenced by either literature or music.” I agree with that. Stephen's a music man. And I am too. (I believe you're a poetry man, John. But that's another conversation.) As a kid I studied classical music, played piano and viola, sang in church and school choirs. But I was tainted at a very early age. I bought my first single, the Rolling Stones’ “Little Red Rooster” when I was 6. I listened to music and read the music press avidly.
1977 (when the two sevens clash) was the year I started art school, and the year punk really made its presence felt. There had already been advance warning from the States: Patti Smith, The Cramps, Jonathan Richman. But for British youth, before the music became rigidly dogmatic and the ideology mere fashion, punk caused a fundamental shift in our awareness of almost everything. Probably the best-written account of that era is Jon Savage's “England's Dreaming”. I played in a bunch of bands: bass in a punk band in Scotland, viola and accordion in a country-punk band in London, and drums in one band in NYC and then back to bass in another one. I have to say I was probably the worst musician in all of them, but it was that punk/do-it-yourself ethic. And it was a lot of fun. In London I also worked in a chain of second-hand record shops that were infamous for the rudeness and arrogance of their employees: the clichéd record/bookstore scenario.
In many ways that punk ethic still permeates a lot of what I do. I usually find it's the simplest, most direct, most concise idea that works best. And I continue to believe in the holy grail of the perfectly crafted three-minute pop song as quintessential cultural contribution. So yeah, my painting is pop inflected with a lower-case “p”—street-smart as you put it. It’s definitely no concept album.
I`m not so sure of Pop with a capital “P”. In art school I really loved the British painter Richard Smith, who did huge paintings based on the Lucky Strike pack. But I was also looking at Brice Marden and Alan Charlton a lot. And I wrote my final paper on minimalist sculptors like Carl Andre and Ronald Bladen. (Of course I was seeing all this work in books and magazines because I assure you, none of it was coming to the northeast of Scotland.) Thinking about it again now, the attraction of Richard Smith’s work was precisely his blend of Pop and Minimalism. But there's an irony in Pop which I don’t believe exists in my work. I decided many years ago that I wanted no more truck with irony and its knowing nod. My use of colour infers Pop, but I think that’s merely an aesthetic connection.
Or it could be that the work is kind of funny or humorous, which is something that is often said about it. I've never set out to do that—to make a funny painting—but I think I understand what people mean; that the paintings transmit, or convey, humour. They’re not funny ha-ha, they're not visual jokes. If that were the premise of the work then they would always only be one-liners.
I feel short-changed when abstract paintings are untitled, or worse, given a classification code—like the opus system in music, or something. I don’t factor in a title at the beginning, but I would hate to send a painting out into the world without a name. What kind of person would do that anyway? The inherent danger of titling abstract work is that it creates a narrative link that interferes with the painting, so I'm always looking for something that is neutral. It’s like, “Oh, and here's something else to think about, something apart, if you want to.” For me, there has to be a title, but I don't mind if others perceive it as an optional extra. In Spain many people don't understand the title in English so really I must be doing it for my own benefit. Using lines from songs is my way of not being held accountable for them, shifting the responsibility. I keep a list of possibilities, lines that jump out while I’m working, which I jot down.

JZ: I love that you played viola and accordion in a punk country band. That’s perfect! There is a lightness and humor to your work. And I think it's really hard to make a truly funny painting. If humor is about timing, how do you get that into a painting? I don't know. Guston could do it. Amy Sillman does it, too. Like you, I’m not talking about joke and one-liner paintings, but of something involved with the form and the color and the surprise. I think of Raoul De Keyser and Mary Heilmann, both whose work I love. Sometimes with Raoul I can’t really tell if he’s pulling my leg, but with Mary I know she is. Did I ever tell you what she said when she gave a lecture a few years ago at Mills College? She showed a brushy and lyrical painting called “Heaven”, laughed out loud, and told everyone, “This is my abstract expressionist painting. You know, it’s really hard to make a good abstract expressionist painting—even when you’re kidding!” This element of off-handedness and tossed-off nonchalance is also in your work.
Richard Smith is really good. I like that generation of British painters who aren't talked about much, like Robyn Denny and John Hoyland. I really love Patrick Heron and Winifred Nicholson. They are amazing colorists, and much more French, which I like. Though Smith was the one who really brought Pop into the color field wing of the New York School. That blend of disparate influences appeals to you in music too, doesn’t it?
But let's go back to your paintings. What strikes me most—like in the one with yellow shapes floating in the hot pink (img 5114), and in the one with ochre, bright yellow, and hot pink (img 5120)—is that it is impossible to tell where the color is. Is it coming from underneath or is it on top of the other color? There is a constant flux and ambiguity. At first glance they seem very stable, almost locked together, but then looking at the colors, they begin to flip back and forth. Are you looking specifically for this kind of unpredictability?

JD: That’s a great definition of timing in a painting: form and colour and surprise. I’d add scale to it, too. Mary Heilmann and Raoul de Keyser definitely have it, although for me Mary’s humour is open and embracing while de Keyser’s is perhaps more guarded. Maybe that’s a good example of the American/European dichotomy summed up in the clichéd misconception that all Europeans think Americans to be naïve and all Americans think Europeans to be cynical. I love that painting, “Heaven”. It was the last painting you came to in Mary’s first show at 303 Gallery, on the back wall in the back room. I remember at the time thinking it was a really audacious painting.
I too like Heron— and William Scott, although his colour was more muted. And you’re preaching to the choir when you mention Winifred Nicholson. Didn’t we once talk about her show at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge? Jane Freilicher and Elizabeth Blackadder mine a similar vein. Also, I’ve always liked Samuel Peploe, a member of an early 20th century group called the Scottish Colourists, who in their own way were Scotland’s equivalent to Marsden Hartley and the Regionalists.
Okay, back to my paintings. I’d say I am looking for that unpredictability, or instability, although it’s not a prerequisite for making a painting. It plays with what’s on top and what’s underneath, and also with notions of flatness and depth. I fret about the paintings becoming too flat and graphic, and it’s a fine line for me between that and letting in too much of the painterly. But that’s where I want the work to be. Stephen Mueller flips a lot between over and under, figure and ground. I think artists as different as Gary Hume and Dan Walsh play with it too. I enjoy the ambiguity. It’s a way of acknowledging that there are so many more truths than just the one.

[From January to April 2011]

For more about Jack Davidson, see his OBLIDI artist page >