Ian Davenport

Clement Greenberg made no bones about the fact that he considered Jules Olitski to be the best painter alive. Judging by the reception of Ian Davenport’s first show, one might be led to believe that Olitski has a new contender on this side of the Atlantic. Davenport’s rise to prominence in the space of one year has been meteoric by any standard. The question is whether the star will turn to dust—whether these suave, curiously impenetrable gray and black paintings are the ghosts of energies past, or the trajectories of an as yet unfamiliar life whose body may not yet be fully formed but is already lusty.

There is no doubt that Davenport has mastered the language of Modernist painting—he can pour and drip with the best of them. Some of the early work was more colorful, and the dripping and pouring more haphazard (or so it seemed). Now Davenport’s excitement with material and its fluidity is tempered and beautifully controlled. He talks of a kind of “exuberant methodicalism.” In these paintings chaos is just another kind of order. In the large black canvases, billowing, alembic shapes defined in sharp, little arcs of black gloss, rank the upper edge of the painting, tapering into thin slicks coursing down and off the lower edge.

Davenport’s shapes hang in thin air (or rather on a ground of smooth mat gray or black). In the untitled gray series, the tones range from silver to a warm taupe, their differences heightened by the color of the dripping varnish that deepens the grid. If the black paintings are iconic, even decorative, certainly erotic (someone said they had the feel of sheer, black, silk stockings), the gray paintings are equivocal conundrums. The drips run both ways, enmeshing the gaze in a web of paint; there is nothing behind, but one is made to want to tear through—to come up for air. Indeed there is something suffocating about these works, even decadent; the black paintings induce that slightly queasy feeling that fin de siècle Aubrey Beardsley does. But the gray work is cooler, the rhythms more mechanical than carnal. The pulse is digital, even if the skin, the surface, is warm blooded. In this tension lies their peculiar attraction and their distance from the ’60s obsession with surface matters. There is no sense of mass in Davenport’s works, no sense of “the intense fibrousness of an unknown and opaque substance,” which Julia Kristeva finds in Jackson Pollock. There is paint and nothing much but paint—no sociology, no politics and only a little art history—which makes looking a lot more difficult. If Davenport has succeeded in making us do that again, then he has triumphed, even if the victory is Pyrrhic.

Marjorie Allthorpe-Guyton