New York

Brad Davis And Ned Smyth

Holly Solomon Gallery

Brad Davis and Ned Smyth recently collaborated on an installation entitled The Garden. It might seem strange that The Garden was exhibited or that it took place, or especially that it was indoors, encompassed by a showcasing business structure—a gallery. It wasn’t the best context. In fact, much of the art shown at this particular gallery suffers from being shown in a gallery. I find that negative comments about the art shown there often disappear when the work is encountered in a less formal setting.

In spite of, or rather because of, the difficulty the notion of “gallery” imposes on the work, I value this gallery’s activities. When did we last have a commercial structure bringing up any interesting dilemmas—especially self-reflecting ones? The gallery can’t solve the problem until the artists do, but the artists need the gallery in order to start.

For The Garden the space tried to transform itself as much as possible. The walls were painted green. Around the upper perimeters a frieze of byzantine leaves was stenciled with metallic paint. Reflecting the shape of the room were rows of cast concrete, quasi-architectural elements, the work of the sculptor Ned Smyth. A colonnade with a metal grill, a series of decorative capitals suggesting an arcade, and various dramatic arrangements of palm-tree motifs were placed to form an inner courtyard. These elements were offset by a freestanding tabernacle/fountain structure inside the cloister. Through these structures and beyond them, Brad Davis’ large paintings on the wall provided the vista. The intent was to create the overtones of a spiritual garden (Eden, Zen, etc.); one, however, which was not laden with any individual culture’s dogma, and that maintained a reverent atmosphere while avoiding any one particular style or rhetoric.

The Garden, the spiritual essence of all gardens, was collaged from motley manifestations of just about everything. Like those who ambitiously gathered to erect the Tower of Babel and could not harmonize their languages, the artists have combined the elements in a somewhat raw manner. Styles are heaped upon styles, mixing neologisms and archaisms; the result is a delightful patois of eclecticism.

Brad Davis is noted for his decorative/abstract paintings whose delicate intricate surfaces hold densely jumbled worlds of flora. He used three major landscape types as vistas for The Garden. There is a Chinese mountainscape with its tilted-up space, another more primitive flattened stage-set-style jungle scene with a peacock, and a four-panel series behind Smyth’s concrete arcade, done basically according to Renaissance conventions except for the background, where gold foil recalls a more medieval space.

Smyth’s contribution to the project remained much more in tune with his other work. A sculptor who casts enigmatic studies of various architectural motifs in the industrial vernacular of concrete, in The Garden he traces the history of the palm column. Reflecting as stone columns do on memories of their previous wood status, his motif, freed from its support function, turns back into a tree. His palm trees evoke a truly romantic and workable concept of the garden. One can believe that he could have made the garden “felt” with a couple of his columns alone—right through the concrete. Davis, however, is an impostor romantica. He merely depicts romantic clichés about nature. The sophistication and beauty of his earlier painting is lost among the mass of material he is dealing with here. Even his unique, glinting color sense breaks up into helter-skelter uneven tonalities. Everything seems extracted from the original, transported and just piled together—a method which could not re-create the Parthenon, but produced the British Museum, a cultural fabrication, a fake, a big illusion. With all its transparency of fabrication, and even with its often cheap look (a 1920s Los Angeles botanical garden coffee shop), this grand illusion is what The Garden is about. Ultimately, it puts up a good, viable argument for being a spiritual space, rather than just an art show.

—Edit DeAk