Q & A with artist John Phillip Davis
Q - This is your first Des Moines exhibition in two years but I believe you’ve shown elsewhere?
A - Yes I had a show at the Washington Pavillion in South Dakota in November 2010 and it featured four of the pieces that are also in this show and also several pieces from the Genus show here two years ago.
Q - Genus was departure for you of sorts. It included mostly multi dimensional works, almost sculptured paintings or painted sculpture. Now your back to flat on the wall stuff, eh?
I found that the Genus show taught me some things about material relationships. I work on several pieces at the same time and as the pieces closed in on me I wanted to concentrate on featuring two different styles - the non representational as well as figuration that I have been working on the last few years. .
Q - Your canvasses remind me of something you said several years ago - that you have your canvasses stretched to be as large as what fits in the largest freight elevator in your studio. What about large appeals to you?
A - You need a big studio to make big work. I am a big guy so I like working on big stuff. I have found that my style works best in large form too. It sets up a whole new platform of challenges too.
Q - How big are these?
A - Half of the show is six by six foot canvasses. A third roughly is four by six. A few are five by five feet.
Q - You have long maintained a reputation amongst your peers as being the master professional craftsman among artists. TJ Moberg once told me that clients are sometimes as impressed looking at the backs of your paintings as the fronts, because they are so expertly crafted, like expensive well built furniture. Is this part of your personal professional ethic?
A - What I have found over the years is that setting your goals, setting your mind upon what you want to do. That involves using fine materials, to set up the underbelly of your creative process. Even if no one looks at the back, if you use the finest materials you can afford and no one knows the difference, at least you will know the difference and respect the work more. That’s always been important to me.
Q - Your personal style and method of application seems to follow through with that same ethic?
A - Yes, the way I apply the material is rather swift and muscular. When I make these paintings they are often at sharp angles or even flat on the floor for long periods of time. In order to help with that process, I need sturdy material and to anchor it well. I think that helps deliver a fine finished product.
Q - There is something going on now in the new paintings that I do not recall in previous shows. It seems you have leaving sections in paintings now that are a little less layered, a little more vulnerable. Does that sound like a fair observation?
A - Yeah. I would say that’s true of this show and that it’s part of my development as an artist. When you become fluid in one style, and you find it’s something you can rely on, then you begin to look for nuances of difference and even radical changes. I think I have a show here that shows equally nuanced and radical changes. The format, the size and the power looks somewhat familiar. But there is a rather wide range of technique that is introduced.
Q - The title “Nightmares & Allegories” seems to indicate that there are two opposite themes going on. Can you divide the show into two such parts?
A - My theory is that initially you will divide it into two parts but as you examine the compositions and the ambiance of the room, and the conversation between the different pieces, then you will discover a single story with a dualistic temperament will surface.
Q - Can you elaborate on that dualism. What are your nightmares and what are the allegories?
A - It seems that in our culture, each time we have a romantic story, we tend to forget the relationship between the hero and the villain. Or we spend all of our time thinking about the villain and forget many heroic aspects of the story line. Depending upon where we are temperature wise in our culture, we can gravitate toward either the hero story or the villain story. It’s not a new concept but one helpful way to talk about this is, if you found someone in the rain crying, and you could not tell if the they were really laughing or crying, you would need to think in other contexts. Not only do I try to set up such context with the titling but with the images themselves. And also with the relationships between one image and another. Nightmares talk about slightly more specific focal points that energize us, or make us afraid or excited. Allegories talk more to subtlety, a self narrative that is personality bent.
Q - Allegory has a spiritual suggestiveness to some folks. Is that intended.
A - There is somewhat of a religious underbelly in my work. I might amplify that its is a spiritual nature of the seen and the unseen. When making a work my goal is not necessarily to tell a specific story, though I have done that in past shows, but to examine the the different nebulous playgrounds and to see what would happen with the inevitable fusion. Not knowing that myself very completely.
Q - It seems that your trademark earth tones are giving way to more blacks. Is the dark side dominating the allegories?
A - I think that is a great point. There are a number of things going on there. Whenever an artist starts to resonate with a palette or a color or a technique, and that technique has a way of affecting overall composition, and it might be a temporary thing, to where you start focusing on brighter tones, or textures. The black has always been a strong anchor in my work, beginning with the calligraphic lines that work as my visual anchors. In this particular show, some of these new pieces I am working are in reverse order. Atmospheric perspective in reverse. Fiery reds are under a sea of black and dark brown drippings. So yes, I think thematically the blacks help tell that story.
Q - The painting “Washing Away’ particularly strikes the eye with fiery reds. Is that a segue painting to your next stage?
A - Often times I have found that within a show there will be one piece that was not necessarily part of my intent to spell out my next journey but did that. But “Washing Away” seems slightly different from the rest, in the sense that it not only discloses a different technique but even its palette is less inhabited by the dark black overtones.
Q - Are you a little less inhabited by dark black overtones?
A - I reserve the right to jump back into those at any time. When you create work you turn yourself over to the work. I think as an artist it’s ok not knowing.
Q - The show if filled with symbolic Xs, or are they crosses?
A - These are all Xs. I like that they have ties of a provocative nature to mathematics. The X is placeholder, symbolically it can mean everything or nothing. It depends upon context again.
Q - Anything you want to add about the show?
A - When you think about the show, my initial idea was to vacillate and “concenter” around the figures. But as I look at the show now, the non objectives, which I thought were going to fall into the background, I think they became as just as potent as the figurations. I’d encourage the viewer to look at them individually and then to look at the messages they are sending in context with one another.
Q - There’s something tactile about the paintings. Do you mind people touching them?
A - I never personally have minded - they are well-preserved, I used plenty of heavy materials. You’d have to check that out with the gallery though.