Essays by James Hyman

The Shaman's Enigma. The word paintings of Alan Davie

The Shaman's Enigma. The word paintings of Alan Davie


The Shaman's Enigma: word and image in the paintings of Alan Davie
Essay by James Hyman

In a world in which less is more, in which to be elegant is to be understated, the paintings of Alan Davie are a mind-blowing world of opulence and embellishment. This is a world in which more is more: more paint, more colour, more agitation, more imagery, more words, more signs, symbols, numbers, annotations. An extraordinary world in which there is no single viewpoint, no single focus, no single subject, no single meaning, no single language. Not even a single style.

Like Picasso, endless creative is to be celebrated. Never look back, never destroy, never explain. Always another painting to paint to create in an endlessly regenerating sequence of productivity.

In Davie's home every surface is covered with catalogues and books devoted to the artist. Every wall is painted an intense colour, embellished with patterns or designs by the artist and covered by his pictures. Every room is a personal retrospective, a kaleidoscope of seven decades of achievement by the artist.

In the studio itself there are new pictures everywhere, testament to an urge to paint that remains undiminished, a vision that is undimmed. There are books too: old favourites such as Jung's Interpretation of Dreams, Veronica Lons The Worlds's Mythology, Garrick Mallery's Picture Writing of the American Indians, B Holas, Art de la Cote d'Ivoire and, more recently, Werner Forman and Stephen Quirke's Hieroglyphs and the Afterlife.

In this world of abundance painting and literature come together in Davie's word paintings. This stream of work began in the mid 1950s and developed in playful paintings of the early 1960s. A major painting of 1955 takes its name from the bold capitalised word at its centre Yes (op. 129) and works of 1961 are inscribed and titled Banana Time (opxx) and Peach Time (opx) but such simplicity gives way to a more poetic spirit in paintings of the 1960s. Oh What a beautiful Bird (op.384) (1961) echoes Miro in its combining of hand written script with pared down image, with a bold circle and stylised arrow sexualising a painting which also declares 'darling its raining'. A painting from 1963 develops such imagery and a bold inscription, this time in capitals, gives it its title, Aimez vous le sourire de cupidon (op. 507).

However it has been since the 1980s that words have come to share an equivalent status to painted imagery. Indeed as the years have passed Davie's paintings have become ever more linguistically complex. Davie, himself, evokes the world of the surrealists and presents himself as aa Shaman or medium, a channel for words and imagery beyond conscious control. Nevertheless, as the paintings selected for the present exhibition demonstrate to understand Davie's painting of the last four decades one must engage with them linguistically as well as aesthetically. Once this barrier has been crossed one can appreciate more fully his particular achievements.

In exploring world cultures Davie anticipates Clemente's apprpriation of Eastern mysticism and echoes the post-Picassian vigor of Wilfredo Lam, Oscar Dominguez and Roberto Matta. In peopling his work with a cast of animals and figures one is reminded of his friendship and indeed collaboration with Niki de San Phalle and in his embellishment one sees echoes of Hundertwasser. But in his evolving use of language, it is perhaps to Philip Guston that one should turn. All art is autobiography, however veiled it may be, but in recent years the psychological as been allowed an ever greater part in Davie's paintings as one can chart moods, states of mind, excitement, pleasure, fear and anguish.

Playfulness has given way to semiotic complexity and complexity to something darker and more emotional.

The titles, often extracted from the text contained in the painting itself are especially revealing. Clues as to the artists conception of the art work are embodied by the title Prayers and Ideograms (plx) while another painting reveals its close literary source and is playfully titled Unabridged Republication (pl x). Others make explicit the Shamanistic status of the artist, notable among them The Shamans's Enigma (plx), and Spirit of the Living God (pl x). These may be evocations of the power of painting and equation of the urge o paint with the artist's lifer force, but none of this can hide the onset of something darker.

Paintings of 2005 deal with parting: To have bitter parting declares one (plx), where I would be and how long gone asserts another (plx). Works of 2006 and 2007 address extremes of emotion: Hope Alive (2006) shouts one title. Out of the Depths Have I Cried, proclaims another painting, which also bears inscribed references to the abyss, the mortal and immortal. But as time passes one painting is entitled Have no Fear (plx) and another Season Passes (pl x), until in a moment as climactic as The Shaman's Enigma, Davie declares Prepare for Immortality (plx)

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