New York

Ronald Davis

Leo Castelli Gallery

Ron Davis’s latest paintings are predominantly multipartite. They are conceived as an assembly of panels grouped on a wall with empty space—sometimes as much as 18 inches of it—separating each panel from the next. This physical disjunction between panels seems to coincide with the image embodied by each member, for in all three series of these pictorial ensembles, the theme is one of a set of containers. In the series of which Four Fold is an example, each panel is illusionistically scored to represent a box which is open at the top; in another series of panels stacked vertically, the upper and lower sections appear as the top and bottom halves of an open casket; while, in what seemed to me the strongest series from the exhibition, two truncated pyramids are staggered along the wall, one above and to the right of the other, each handled to project the illusion of a hollow volume into which the viewer illusionistically peers. (Two works from this last series were Plinth and Truncated Pyramids, both extended laterally for 18 feet.) It is in the face of this literal and thematic disjunctiveness that one surprisingly finds oneself reading the separate parts as uncompromisingly coordinated into a single pictorial experience—an experience which forces the viewer to include the immediate area of the wall on which the panels hang as inextricably bound to it. What seems to be the cause of one’s overcoming of the separateness of the elements with so little hesitation, is the perspective system which holds each of the panels in a vise-like grip. For this perspective system dictates both the external form of their literal shapes and the internal delineations which impress on them the illusion of three-dimensional volume.

But in fact the imperious plausibility of the three-point perspective system gradually comes to seem not so much a cause of one’s sense of the coherence of the ensemble, but only a motivation for it. Indeed, the handling of surface and color and design continually exerts a counter-pressure against the grip of the perspective. The surface no longer has the misty, atmospheric quality of the transparent resin of the earlier Davises, which encouraged and even heightened conviction about the illusion of volume. Matte, dense, spattered, it now appears thickened and congealed like eggs that have broken and dried on a linoleum floor. Color undermines the illusion when, because it is applied in ragged edged bands of contrasting hue and value, it encourages a piecemeal reading of the surface of the individual panels. And when read in this way, the overlays of color combine with fragments of the internal drawing to promote perspective reversals—so that, for example, in the left-hand panel of Four Fold the definition of the most interior corner of the illusionistic box tends to get isolated out of the total sense of the figure as a coherent whole and to flip 180 degrees until it appears as the foremost corner of the undersurface of a box seen from below. In this sense the elements of each panel operate in a manner which is the direct obverse of Cubist construction. In Cubist painting (of the Analytic kind) the illusion is coherent from point to point, but fails to add up consistently in an overall reading of the picture. The picture—seen globally—instead proclaims the facticity of its surface and the geometry of its shape, both of which are shown to be inimical to the preservation of a consistent illusion. But in these works by Davis, while the pictorial elements fracture the illusion, the external shape of each panel is a powerful restorative to one’s perception of volume rather than flatness.

Now, it seems paradoxical, in searching for the cause for the plausibility of the illusion of wholeness within and throughout the entire ensemble, to point to the literal shape of the separate panels. For one’s past experience with painting would lead one to expect that it would be here, in the literal edge of the panel that flatness would become a dominating experience, and that the panel, juxtaposed against the equally flat wall would impress one as a decorative entity whose opacity could never sponsor the belief that one is confronted with something even remotely like the real density of whole objects that make up one’s experience of things in the world.

The newness of Davis’s paintings resides precisely in the fading of this paradox within the grip of the illusion. For what becomes clear is that the wall surface on which the separate panels hang absorbs the literalness of the panels’ shapes and renders them into powerfully felt depictions of shape. In order to do this the wall itself is made to count as a pictorial entity in a new way. What constitutes its counting pictorially is that it seem oblique: that it seem itself the medium rather than merely the support for an experience of illusion. Thus the viewer’s decision to accept the plausibility of the illusion involves the acknowledgement that he is willing to believe in the excavation of the wall not simply behind the surface of an individual picture nor simply as a background for a set of panels, but as the horizon against which he can both intend objects and come to see his own capacity for belief.

Having said this, I have to add that there seem to me aspects of these paintings which tend to undermine my experience of their authority. Most particularly the paint-handling appeared to me like a sardonic recollection of the rhythmic passages of black stained pigment in Pollock’s late work. Whereas in those Pollocks, the sense of a draftsman’s anxiety over the free-hand placing of an edge kept the throws of paint lithe and sensitive, Davis’s applications of color have none of that sense of cost. Therefore, their raggedness seems artificial or contrived, like the dirtying-up of color in late Abstract Expressionism. In the arbitrariness of the color and the quality of the paint-handling I sensed a kind of fear of not looking tough enough. But contrived toughness usually operates as a mask for having nothing to say. In the face of Davis’s pictorial intelligence, this kind of masking seems only to muffle the work rather than to strengthen it.

Rosalind Krauss