New York

Ron Davis

Castelli Gallery | Uptown

Ron Davis has extended the techniques and implications of his work of last year in a series of variations on a dodecahedron seen in partial elevation. He has increased the complexity and the range of relationships between color and surface, thereby enriching and clarifying the speculative and pictorial aspects of his effort to a degree which uncompromisingly defies the limits of the brief review.

Before considering, nevertheless, the manner in which this is accomplished, I should make clear that Davis represents, in my view, a fresh and supremely intelligent extension of a development central in the history of Western painting. The synthetic quality of his work, inseparable from that freshness, has not been greatly stressed, and this may be due, in part at least, to some misinterpretation or mis-reading of the terms of his illusionism.

My own attitude is borne out, to a degree, by the manner in which Davis pays homage, through the choice of the dodecahedral form, to the development of perspective as articulated in the work of the Renaissance painters and particularly in that of Uccello. The dodecahedron in question revives the form of the mazzocchio, the subject of three drawings by Uccello in the collection of the Uffizi Gallery published in Berenson’s Drawings of the Florentine Painters (1938) and discussed by Kern in an article published in the Jahrbuch der Königlich Preussischer Kunstsammlungen of 1915). These drawings constituted an episode of interest in the development of perspective through the costruzione legittima, as it facilitated the transformation of the relatively flat or opaque, decoratively disposed surface of medieval painting into the deeper, more rationalized space assimilated to the picture plane of Renaissance art. That plane, subjected to a conflict or tension between axes, between varying or shifting eye levels and re asserted in a stricter or more explicit relation to a three dimensional space became, as instituted by Cézanne, the space of modernist painting. It is Davis’s questioning or redefinition of such relations, his distension of the notion of surface, which primarily account for the cogency and the pleasure of his critical illusionism.

In Vector, the complexity of illusionist reversals is intensified by the increased range of translucency, opaqueness and a rendered transparency operating within color areas, single and superimposed. In this painting, there is an illusionistically rendered folding back of the outer rim of the dodecahedron. This green surface, folded back, as it were, from the spectator onto a base area, toward a picture plane and furthermost “rim,” is joined perpendicularly by a band which becomes blue, green, dark blue as it passes over a purple area of that furthermost “rim,” ending in dark green again at the ,left hand outer, elevated rim of the dodecahedron. One has read the band, then, as a screen, translucent and coloring other sections of the rim, whose colors are in turn related, most ambiguously, to the surfaces they inhabit. One sees the band as flat or as necessarily at right angles to the largish area at lower left, whose mottled purplish color, unbounded by the figuration of a “rim,” appears as parallel to an undefined picture plane. Or again, one can see that area as the form’s tilted base, for looking to the upper right, one sees that the whitish area enclosed is logically—though not otherwise—continuous with it. This area has, that is, the right-angled relation to “rim” that the purplish one has to the folded sides. There is some indefinable point at which the continuity of this plane has been lost or obscured. And there is another, at which it will be restored. And the mind holds these two in tension.

In Spiral, the central violet “rim” panel facing us and parallel to an hypothetical picture plane also folds back, as it were, into three panels (orange, blue and brown) which figure the sides of a rectangle, an open cube, tilted, though not enough so that its base is perceptible. The effect of the folding had proposed one plane too many for a dodecahedron (unfolded, it would give you thirteen sides). One sees the configuration of four sides as both flat and autonomous with respect to the space of the elevation (though all flatnesses are qualified by the gradations of distance between color and surface). And one recognizes it as constituting an adumbration of the double, open topped polyhedron, in closer reference to the mazzocchio, tilted toward us.

It has been suggested that the interest of Davis’s painting is involved with the beholder’s experience of incompatibilities, that its unique power derives, in fact, from the projection upon the beholder of a kinesthetic experience of conflicting vantage points. I believe this interpretation to be erroneous, and that it rests upon a failure to acknowledge Davis’s particularly accomplished use of three-point, rather than two point perspective. (Three-point perspective is relatively neglected in the manuals published prior to this century, as it is linked to certain specifically contemporary experiences, those of an age of skyscrapers and airplanes.)

Davis’s work does not, I think, derive its power from the suggestion through illusion that the spectator is both suspended in space above an object and tilted toward it. It rather renders the object as being situated below the spectator and as tilted toward him, and it visibly hangs on a wall. If this be so, one’s experience (my own at least) does not involve, as it has for Michael Fried (see Artforum, April, 1967), the sensation of the ground dissolving beneath one’s feet.

The result of this shift of position and emphasis does, of course, act to deprive the work of that ultimate dimension of revelation-through-disorientation of a category of perception such as “directionality.” It may, indeed seems to, attenuate its quality, proposing, as it does, not an instrument of phenomenological shock and discovery but a fascinating instance of a visually incarnated meditation on the nature of pictorial space and vision. I would want to consider elsewhere and at leisure the manner in which works of art can, in fact, rehearse the radical drama of cognition for which we do tend increasingly to cast them. For the moment, however, the bracketing of this role should in no way imply a diminution of the quality of Davis’s painting or the manner in which it extends, deepens or intensifies our awareness of pictorial possibilities. If Davis does not open a chasm before us, he does, nevertheless, as Descartes put it, “make uncertainty more certain.”

Annette Michelson