New York

Brad Davis

Holly Solomon Gallery and Nancy Hoffman Gallery

Brad Davis’ work is astonishing in its juxtapositions: acrylic-on-canvas paintings of stylized fauna and invented flora are bordered with that most garish of fabric: patterned polyester double-knit. Davis’ brilliantly colored paintings are the fourway collision of Fauve hue, Eastern religious symbolism, acrylic paint and acrylic textiles. More than any of the painters in the so-called Decorative movement, Davis pushes the boundaries of taste. Working against a natural facility as connoisseur/copyist of Orientalia, these are creations of bizarre animals frolicking, suffering through improbable landscapes.

The animals in a Davis painting—bulls resemble unicorns, dogs look like boars, birds are combination fowl and sparrow—are troubling in the way Rousseau’s or Bonheur’s pet population is: they’re actually haunting portraits of people. Like those two painters, Davis’ imaginative transformation of the commonplace (a dog in the yard) into the unreal gives his work emotional voltage.

In this work, Davis’ formerly tight, conventionalized rendering gives way to a more relaxed paint handling. This reveals his fondness for the grotesque rather than the refined, the expressionistic gesture triumphs over the illustrator’s refinement. Davis’ self-conscious naiveté—the paintings in the show range from the traditional modeling in Nandi in the Mountains to the contorted depiction of Shiva’s Dog—may very well be the cutting edge of his work. This show marks a tension, a transition between his formerly studied style and a new unstudied one.

What’s the advantage for Davis in de-schooling? His motivation might spring from a nostalgia for the stylistically less complicated, the desire to show the awkwardness of his painting rather than exercising his proficiency. Most of these are strained, contorted portraits of strained, contorted animals: each beast furtively looking over its shoulder, barking at the moon, stalking another beast. But catharsis is the dominant mood; there’s no restraint here. Liberation from his traditions is the advantage of Davis’ de-education.

The lack of restraint doesn’t make for the slapdash; witness only the careful installation of the paintings, where tondos complement the severe rectangularity of the other paintings. The drawings—acrylic on fiberglass—are exquisitely mounted on satin backings. These works could be compared to Indian miniatures, medieval tapestries, to any art congested with decoration and symbol, but Davis is too smart to resuscitate the past for the sake of opulence.

A turn of the century quip: “A cultured man is one who has a lot of information that isn’t worth anything to him.” Davis has huge amounts of art history that’s valuable to him; the trouble is making it valuable to others. There’s no term for his art historical sense—connoisseur-ship really—where the impulse to recycle devalued modes dominates. It can’t be called classicism, because the content of this work is not a rekindling of interest in Graeco-Roman culture. In architecture, the catchall “eclecticism” is usually applied, and that term is certainly appropriate for Davis’ work. Eclecticism and studied naiveté are the two routes he proposes to get out of the ghetto of the tasteful. Davis might say, “a cultured man is one who has a lot of taste that isn’t worth anything to him.”

Carrie Rickey