Juan Davila

Although Juan Davila cannibalizes the body of art, his paintings do not show art consumed by desire, but desire by art. Most commentary on Davila is flawed by a fixation on his appropriative method, which should be distinguished from quotation as another bibliophile’s vice. In these paintings sexual fantasy appears as permanent reality; here, the studio stands in for all of culture, and sex is the center of the universe.

Davila’s overheated painting is undeniably powerful; one wishes it were possible to feel some interest or empathy for his characters, but Davila doesn’t tell us anything about his subjects—Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera et al. They are ciphers standing in for art. Davila says that “Painting has no inner life,” and he juxtaposes Latin American art, gay pornography, modernist painting and science fiction. Among all these are isolated paintings of heads that lack any relationship to their fellows. These are “real” people, but they are not real portraits. Monogram, 1989, is a gallery of figures in the Australian avant-garde. It is also a gallery of works of art; Robert Rauschenberg’s combine is parodied in the title—Davila includes a kangaroo instead of a goat. The game of find-the-artwork is his way of telegraphing to the metropolitan center that its gaze comprehends only what is generated by its own tradition.

The specific identity of people seen in these outsized paintings is a matter of the greatest importance for our understanding, since Davila chooses to render museum labels for some, like Kahlo, and to brand others with the marks of their signature style. Mike Parr, for example, appears with his head anamorphically distorted. These are portraits of the professional aspects of people—of the appearance of individuals within art’s economy rather than revelations of personality. Recognizable personalities are posed in tableaux that are messy and anarchic, but just as self-conscious as those of Clegg and Guttmann. It is clear that the characters Davila portrays are known to him. The meanings of his large allegories are far more explicit and less bound by theory than the artist and his public assume. The Australian animals in Monogram are borrowed from children’s stories and games. Their presence is metaphorical and suggests play, reward and judgment—this painter’s chief narrative pretexts. Images of people engaged in sexual play shadowed by animal accomplices, for example Fragonard’s voyeuristic lapdogs, accentuate the erotic symbolism. The stuffed kangaroo whose head bursts through the canvas in Monogram is a reluctant signal of traditional meanings.

One might explain Davila’s notoriety by suggesting that he heightens and refines the fantasies of his art-world contemporaries. This would explain the various scandals that have surrounded his work, like the seizure by the Sydney Vice Squad of his vast, pornographic neo-Expressionist compendium, Stupid as a Painter, 1981, in the early ’80s. However, Davila does not proceed systematically; he invents haphazardly, so that the paintings do not bear analysis as logical constructions. Though ironic meanings are abundant, Monogram is a hybrid testimony to intoxicating dreams and desires, and to the inadvertently urgent search of painters for art. Paradise, says Davila the unrelenting parodist, exists in the human heart.

Charles Green