Ivor Davies, Disintegrating, ca. 1956, oil, eggshell, and metal on board, 36 × 48".

Ivor Davies, Disintegrating, ca. 1956, oil, eggshell, and metal on board, 36 × 48".

“Silent Explosion: Ivor Davies and Destruction in Art”

National Museum Cardiff

Ivor Davies, Disintegrating, ca. 1956, oil, eggshell, and metal on board, 36 × 48".

“THIS IS NOT A RETROSPECTIVE,” warned Ivor Davies as I walked into the octogenarian’s mega-exhibition, up through March 20, at the National Museum Cardiff. An unsuspecting visitor to the show—dedicated to one of the Welsh art scene’s leading lights and crammed with paintings, sculptures, and archival materials—might be forgiven for wondering, “Why not?” Certainly, “Silent Explosion,” curated by the museum’s Nicholas Thornton and by scholar Judit Bodor, has all the makings of a good, long, reflective survey. The exhibition, described by the museum as “the first to consider the broad range of Davies’s artistic practice,” presents the artist’s career from the 1940s to now, tracking his journey from South Wales to Switzerland and Scotland and back to Penarth (Wales’s “Garden by the Sea”), where Davies now lives in his ancestral home.

Yet as I traveled around the exhibition, installed across the museum’s contemporary galleries, it became clear that this “Explosion” blows up the conventional idea of a retrospective: It begins at the end and ends at the beginning. The first gallery displays offerings from the ’90s and 2000s; the last room (dubbed “Destructive Beginnings”) takes the viewer back to Davies’s childhood during World War II: Drawings of planes, barrage balloons, and searchlights provide the artist’s perspective on the bombing of his neighborhood. “Destructive Beginnings” also includes multiple postwar works. Disintegrating, ca. 1956, draws on the organic shapes of tachism as well as on distressed surfaces that, although predating Arte Povera, set the terms for Davies’s later long-distance engagement with the movement, via his participation in the Welsh artist group Beca. The work evokes gangrene on a suppurating wound. Undoubtedly, the artist’s war-ridden youth left a lasting impression.

Davies is a contentious celebrity in Wales; his artwork festers with sociopolitical discontent—underscoring the fact that Wales invariably played second fiddle in the construction of a so-called United Kingdom. His works often deal with the way Welsh communities and culture have had to make way for “British” interests. In Epynt, 2000–2003, bloodred soil is affixed to a rectangle of burlap. The work’s title refers to the Mynydd Epynt region in Mid Wales, where, in 1939, thousands of acres were converted into a military training ground and firing range. Of the Welsh-speaking community, who had lived on the land for generations and who were forced out to make room for the training zone, nothing remains but the black-and-white photos that Davies collaged onto the frame of his commemoration. But as one looks more closely, a tiny mound at the center of the painting assumes the contours of a horse and human figure—Epona, the Celtic horse goddess, rising to meet the viewer from the morass of mud. Is her resurrection a plea for the acknowledgment of Wales’s Celtic lineage, one distinct from England’s Anglo-Saxon past?

The exhibition exhumes multiple definitions of Davies the artist. And in the subsection “Ivor Davies Selects,” the artist himself has integrated two of his paintings—one abstract, the other figurative—within a selection of works by other artists that collectively evince a troubled international dialogue. All of the outside paintings in this section were handpicked from the trust of Cardiff-born collector Derek Williams. A small bronze, Maquette for Reclining Interior Oval, 1965, by quintessentially British modernist Henry Moore is here offset by Last Punch of the Clock, 2009, an assemblage by the Welsh artist David Garner. Last Punch contains a punch clock, a stack of time cards skewered by a steel spike, a card holder, and a glass jar containing card chads. Garner’s spike is the height of his deceased father, who used a similar machine to clock in at the coal mine where he worked. The piece is an elegy both to the elder Garner and to Wales’s vanishing industrial economy. In positioning these two sculptures side by side, Davies complicates his own role as artist-curator: Is he a stridently political Welshman or a British nostalgist? Is it the past he mourns or the future he seeks to mold? After all, Wales’s relationship with Britain is not uncomplicated—and while Davies aligns himself with a wider British art scene via Moore, he makes common cause with Wales’s specific heritage. Also included in Davies’s selection is a work by Iwan Bala, another member of Beca. Formed in the early ’70s, the group revitalized Wales’s homegrown art scene, giving cultural ballast to the country’s demands for increased political devolution. (Since 1998, Wales has had its own national assembly in Cardiff.)

If Davies plays the curator in room 2, room 3 is the brainchild of Bodor, who has worked collaboratively with the artist to revisit his 1968 live work Adam on St Agnes’ Eve, which was first performed at the Swansea University Arts Festival. Photographs taken during the original performance show a man in surgeon’s garb cutting open a screen on which Dürer’s Adam and Eve, 1504, is projected. In an echo of the work’s first iteration, in which the torn screen revealed a pair of nude performers, here anatomical prints, copies of the originals used in the performance, are projected alongside the documentary footage. Meanwhile, Thornton tracks Davies’s involvement in the legendary 1966 Destruction in Art Symposium in London, which featured performances and presentations by Gustav Metzger and Yoko Ono. Here, viewers see videos of the “destructive” Happenings Davies staged between 1966 and 1968. In Beach, 1967, a table laid as if for a seaside picnic is set on fire. Three headless tailors’ dummies, tied to chairs, are detonated and ignite slowly as the table floats out to sea. The work channels Viennese Actionism’s outré entwining of the sacred, the profane, and the eschatological. If the blazing table alludes to seventeenth-century Dutch still lifes, it also gestures to the Last Supper. Is destruction a prelude to resurrection? Davies confesses in the wall text: “I would pray to God not to let me die. Furthermore, could He let me live forever?” Within this show, at least, Davies enacts a spritely dance with death.

Zehra Jumabhoy is an art historian based in London and Wales.