Juan Davila

Across a corner of Rat Man, 1980, Juan Davila spells out his early painting’s comic-strip intention in cursive script: A DISCOURSE ABOUT A DISCOURSE / ART IS MADE FOR THE RECOGNITION OF DESIRE. When he painted Rat Man, it seemed that Davila’s discourse of pornographic desire centered on a programmatic method of citation and viral perversion of modern and contemporary art. Twenty-five years later, this large and exquisitely curated survey makes it clear that Davila recognized that desire resides more in the vicious, willed malevolence of people toward one another than in the multiplicity of sexual and artistic borrowing depicted in Rat Man.

Born in Santiago, Chile, Davila attended art school at the start of the ’70s, during a period of tragic political instability, and then moved to Australia in 1974 (he still lives in Melbourne). There are two other facts that most people who have heard of Davila know: At the 1982 Biennale of Sydney, his vast pornographic panorama Stupid as a Painter, 1981–82, was seized by the police; at London’s Hayward Gallery in 1994, his transvestite representation of Simón Bolívar, South America’s great liberator, triggered an international diplomatic scandal. Producing hot, wildly sexualized, transcontinental history painting, Davila has had one eye on the art museum’s occluded sexual economy and another on the more undigested, less polite, more repellent colonial undersides of Latin American and Australian history. His works have always been about dramatic splits—traumatic divisions—and the naturalizing masks that hide this mountainous geography. For this reason his pictures of the ’80s and ’90s look like neo-expressionist machines—imagine a totally wired, hyperactive, queered Julian Schnabel. During that period, Davila was essentially producing performances of painting, simulating masterpieces. More recently, the uncanny and unexpectedly tender appearance of affectionate friends and family (rather than syphilitic, predatory colonial explorers), in pastoral scenes and domestic interiors, signals either the acknowledgement of humility or his mellowing with age.

But I think that Davila has astutely developed the split in his own work to resolve a paradox facing both Latin American and Australian artists: How can one communicate beyond national borders while intervening in the political and cultural situation at home? One horn of this dilemma is predicated on the magnanimity of the international art world toward regional art centers, but, as Davila has written, this superficial generosity erases at the very least “a whole continent and race that have disappeared from the scholarship about modernism.” The other—the desire to make a local difference—is based on the surprisingly optimistic hope that figurative painting can communicate to a wide public about controversial issues, a vision that is probably only credible in small regional societies that do not recognize the anachronism of such a grand vision for painting, even when the artist achieves such notoriety through scatological caricature. (Davila has managed such national controversy in Australia, too.)

In one of a series of statements that dominate the beautiful book accompanying the exhibition, the artist informs us that Lost Child, 1999, revises the sentimental and hugely popular genre of late-nineteenth-century Australian paintings depicting white children lost in the Australian bush. He substitutes a luncheon on the grass dominated by a naked half-caste child and a parasol-wielding aboriginal mother. If Davila’s more recent model is odd, old academic realism, then it is because his address is increasingly to the adopted Australian home that has repressed its frightful past (the genocidal extermination of indigenous Australians accompanied by fear of the miscegenation that the frontier allowed) and demonized the other.

Charles Green