New York

Ron Davis

Blum/Helman Gallery

The paintings of Ron Davis are flagrant. If you don’t like flagrancy for flagrancy’s sake, you are left with two options: cast a cold eye on them (and leave it at that) or argue them into line with the work of Stella and others (that is, the canon). The first option is not in very good faith; it is the way of prudes. The second option is in such good faith as to be bad faith; it is the way of sophists. I’m somewhere in-between: embarrassed for liking them, wondering why I do.

Up until 1973 or so, Davis made irregularly shaped paintings with polyester resin and fiberglass. As most critics had it, Davis, like others, used that odd outer geometry to insist upon the paintings as objects. Unlike others, however, he did not infer the inner geometry from the outer; the “inside” of the paintings did not carry through the object-status of the “outside.” Often quite the contrary: the inner geometry made for a relentless illusion of space though not, of course, the illusion of space normal to representational painting. In brief, the paintings insisted equally upon objectness and illusionism, which at the time seemed a momentous thing.

More important, at least to the new paintings, is the way the illusion of space in the old paintings was so extreme that it worked against itself. The illusion of space and the representation of space separated: the first so exceeded the second as to oppose it. In a sense, illusionism, or techniques of illusionism like perspective and foreshortening, became the subject of abstraction. Or, if this is going too far, illusionism became decorative and so (oddly enough) flat.

The play of the paintings as a space and as a decoration, rather than as a space and as an object, now seems to be the salient thing about the work. For a few years now, Davis has used a rectangular format, which of course is not so insistent upon the objectness of the paintings. It is as if the old object-paintings are now motifs of the new paintings, as if the illusionism of the paintings has consumed the objectness, or somehow made it interior to the paintings.

In all the new paintings there is a checkerboard ground or floor of tiles that is standard, say, in Vermeer but is here distorted—again, in an illusionism that is beyond illusion. Each of these grounds is different, as if as a result of the different positions of the painter (thus the paintings do not make up a continuous “gallery” of pictures). On the checkerboards are painted rather fantastic geometric objects; as far as I know, these objects do not exist beforehand, i.e. they are invented when painted, and so are “objects” only in the realm of painting. That they do not convince, as objects with a separate reality, is partly due to drops of paint and transparent spots, smudged edges and pencil lines, which are allowed to remain. But this is secondary. More important, for the way each painting works as both a space and a decoration, is that the objects appear to be objects only insofar as they are irregular in geometry—only that makes them emerge as objects from the checkerboard ground. The order of illusionism, from the frame to the ground and from the ground to the object, is thus no more than a series of distortions in geometry. One feels that the geometry could be “retuned” and each painting turned into either a conventional (i.e. flat) modernist painting or a conventional (i.e. perspectival) Renaissance painting. The slightest adjustment would render a Cubistic painting, in which object and ground are fractured into one another.

The illusionism in these paintings is an illusionism to the second power: an illusionism that is a function of itself and so against itself. It does not make much sense to say that this is regressive or progressive. It is idiosyncratic, but this is not to say that it is unimportant. Davis’ work is, as Nancy Marmer wrote, “an art of superior decoration for luxurious delectation,” but it is also something more, something against that.

Hal Foster