Los Angeles

Bill Davenport

Angstrom Gallery

The eighteen small works in Bill Davenport’s latest show ranged from boyish sight gags like Bummer, 1999, an enameled bean can and golf ball arranged to suggest a missed putt, to the inscrutable fluff of Pair of Lint Sculptures, 1998, in which a couple of fat, ill-formed pancakes made from the detritus of a clothes dryer are displayed with absurd care on a neat little white shelf. The tension between slick gallery presentation and deliberate craftlessness was a constant in the show, as was the impression that one had entered a realm of flattened hierarchies where transgression against conventional ideas of significance was a given.

When they aren’t punch lines, Davenport’s titles are frequently deadpan descriptions, as in the lint sculptures and GO Mitten, 1998, a child-size pink mitten that bears the eponymous command stitched in green yarn across its palm. Presented upright and palm forward in the gesture typically used to signal “stop,” the piece contains an unresolvable contradiction in its fuzzy childishness. Add the name, and you get something like a Zen koan by Bart Simpson, irritating and disarming at the same time.

Built into Davenport’s habitual use of found objects and debased materials and his debunking of notions of social and aesthetic importance is a lighthearted interrogation of the problematics of representation. This emerges in a number of his earnestly dumb objects, from Snow Cans, 1999, with its commercial plastic snow, to Sugarloaf Replica, 1998, a passable wadded-up-and-molded-aluminum-foil model of the actual mountain. The silly materials and insouciant handling subvert the romantic notion of turning to nature for artistic inspiration. Moreover, in the context of Davenport’s work, such seemingly childish substitutions (e.g., plastic for snow) appear to level a critical eye against using any material or object to stand for another, hinting that techniques of representation are always merely ad hoc agreements between the artist and his public.

Davenport’s wit can get quite sharp: Sculpture and Landscape, 1998, is an assemblage of a plaster, vaguely Henry Moore–like abstraction, a disk of green plastic foam, and a garish, badly crumpled synthetic flower. Combining these two pathetic imitations—a banal “modern” sculpture and its worn-out synthetic environment—effectively savages institutionalized public sculpture. Won’t Fit In, 1998, consists of a plastic toy shark squeezed between Plexiglas panes so that its jaw and tail are bent over, a fairly caustic joke at the expense of Damien Hirst, whose work, in spite of its creator’s bad-boy persona, retains the sort of precise craftsmanship Davenport is content to unravel. In fact, it is entirely possible to read the artist’s slacker posture as a form of deference to the shaky integrity of the materials, that is, as a lightness of touch born of his affection for lint and plastic foam—a move away from ironic debunking toward a subtle affirmation of the unimportant.

Michael Odom