New York

Ian Davis

It’s possible to describe Ian Davis’s paintings in just a few words: tidy, faux-naive compositions populated by near-identical men who, in enacting futile rituals in unison, become elements of notation more than agents of narrative. Or so it would seem to judge by the twelve paintings and one collage on view in Davis’s first New York solo show. Here, the primary impulse was the methodical (or is it empty?) act of painting itself, the artist harnessing rudiments of modernist abstraction to figurative ends. Thus the grid is recast as a brick facade in Ceremony, 2007, while the monochrome turns into a gradated battlefield in Strategy, 2006. In this engagement with repetition—of style, pictorial units, and, importantly, themes of warfare, industry, and mass gatherings—Davis makes clear that the failures of representation can be remarkably akin to those of abstraction, in that both now offer only the flimsiest of defenses against arbitrariness and decoration.

Yet Davis tries, maybe even a little too hard, to instantiate meaning. The above-mentioned Strategy as well as Campaign, 2006, are nightmarish visions of infinitely replicating troops, garbed in red coats, traversing gray winter landscapes. In the former, the anonymous marchers cast shadows (this despite the lack of any visible light source) oddly reminiscent of zoetrope flickers or early motion photography. In both paintings, the company marches, like lemmings, toward some striated yet curiously blank horizon—one surmises this cannot but lead off a cliff in Strategy, and into sheer emptiness in the horror vacui of Campaign. Their apparently suicidal mindlessness is clearly the result of bodily regimentation and psychic allegiance manifested as the groupthink of military order. Likewise, the earnest Corporation, 2006, and Doledrum, 2006, are monuments to Dickensian toil, depicting polluting behemoths of overproduction. As in the most chilling of Charles Sheeler’s images, the laborers are absent from the scene, and only the architecture—finally more consumptive than generative—remains. Or take the mordant example of Art Collection, 2007, in which Davis targets the red-hot market by showing lots of stuff in open, slatted wooden crates piled high on a parlor floor.

For all the works’ didacticism (and their admittedly perilous proximity to illustration, not to mention the iconography of video games and the illusionistic possibilities of computer animation), Davis also sometimes gets at something less quantifiable. In this category, I’d group the likes of Contract, 2006, Auditorium, 2006, and Ceremony. In these pictures, instead of relying on cartoonish moralism, Davis suggests a more laconic position that admits, as Hannah Arendt so famously diagnosed in her Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), the banality of evil. This is especially effective insofar as these scenes contain neither soldiers nor laborers, but rather innocuous black-suit-clad men, standing in a dense circle of trees crowned by silver flood lamps in Contract or sitting in abortive pageantry facing a vacant podium in Auditorium.

Perhaps repression, whether social, political, or, at its least treacherous, sartorial, is Davis’s theme. Filled to capacity with more and more of the same detailed but superflat individuals—who, it must be said, vary slightly up close in the slopes of their noses, say, or the tenacity of their hair—the Waiting for Godot–esque plots become wholly ambiguous just as the protagonists are rendered mere figments. These pieces get under one’s skin precisely because they imply the worst without even needing to show it, which leaves you wondering whether those men might still have time to get up and leave.

Suzanne Hudson