Few subjects seem more innocuous than forests and flowers, but context can change everything. In her latest exhibition, Seattle painter Linda Davidson juxtaposes pastoral images with depictions of scenes that are far more ominous, and the effect is purposely unsettling. KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin, joins us now to share his observations on this provocative show.
Landscape painter Linda Davidson thinks sequentially. Her current show of 18 three-foot square paintings is mounted as a narrative, rather like a graphic novel or a filmstrip. Though the paintings are also intended to stand alone (which they do quite handsomely, in most cases), the relationships between the images is clearly something to which the artist attaches great importance, and it decisively shapes the way we experience her pictures.
Davidson has frequently pushed the envelope of what we expect to see in a painting exhibition. Several recent shows featured tiny paintings by the dozens, or even hundreds, creating meta-images as large as 40 feet across where each independent picture was also part of the larger whole. Davidson has also produced giant, text-based drawings using thousands of typed words to build up a grainy image of a tree, or an explosion.
The current show is more modest in scope, but the effect is still striking. The show has a clear, very modern theme: the undercurrent of dread that accompanies our experience of nature – an awareness of calamities both natural (mortality) and man-made. It is appropriate that the paintings that illustrate these ideas are skillful, straightforward, and economical, realism with an appealing painterly touch; documentary in intent, but stripped down in detail.
Each of the three gallery walls contains a self-contained grouping. The most effective of these, and the most coherent, is on the south wall, a set of five images of skies and clouds. Actually, only one of these paintings is just a picture of a cloudy sky, the one in the middle of the group. The other, superficially similar paintings are of the unnatural billows created by fires and explosions, and by the time we’re done scanning the group, we’re not sure if the middle picture is quite as innocent as it appears, either.
Davidson handles her apocalyptic imagery with a sense of restraint – someone is creating these conflagrations, but we don’t have a hint as to who, why, or where. The opening image, "Mindfield", is simplicity itself. The viewer looks up a green hillside to a row of bushes and a lone tree, above which is a clear, cloudless sky. Either we, or the landscape, seems to be in motion, as everything is blurred in horizontal streaks. In sharp focus, however, is a tiny orange cloud rising from the other side of the hill, its hot radiance licking at the edge of the tree, gilding the lowest branches and trunk with an unnatural light. It’s a strong painting because it’s so understated - a bomb blast in Paradise. The blur goes with the cinematic conceit that runs throughout the show, here suggesting the jerky, handheld camera work that we know from the movies.
The other four paintings in the row share a similar palette, composition, and treatment, but they become progressively more fraught as the implied sequence unfolds. "Controlled Detonation," just to the right of "Mindfield," reads like a close-up, with the sky suddenly turned grey, smoke rising from the foreground, and the tree leaning further over. "Cedar" is peaceful, a lone tree silhouetted against a radiant cumulus sky, but Davidson has purposely used urgent, whirling paint strokes to describe the white light in the middle of the cloud, and here the pastoral takes on a sinister possibility that would disappear were the painting seen on its own – an anxious sky, indeed.
"Vamoose," my favorite painting in the show (the title refers to two darting birds in the foreground), seems to take place a bit further on in time, when blast has been replaced by fire. The viewpoint is much further away, and the landscape has changed. We’re now looking at a rutted, tawny field like the moors of Scotland, with a beautifully painted grey smoke plume rising ominously in the distance, its source hidden from our view by the knife-like edge of a green-grey ridge. Is it a battle in progress, a plane crash, terrorism, or simply field burning? By avoiding specifics, Davidson keeps us off balance; something is happening here, but we don’t know what it is… just like the man said.
The last painting in the group is like the scene in the movie where the monster lurches into full view - we finally get a close-up of the source of the calamity. "Kaboom" - titles are not the artist’s strong point -depicts a giant fireball against the blue sky from "Mindfield," but the painting itself is a bit of a letdown ,as the movie monster so often is. Here Davidson’s sketchy, high-key treatment seems a mismatch for the subject matter, and neither the fireball nor the accompanying smoke has any weight. Part of the horror of an explosion is how dense and solid it is, not just a froth of gas, but a thing with a sculptural presence, planes and dimensions, a substance unlike any other.
The other two walls of the gallery contain similarly interesting groups, but without the satisfying narrative arc of the "Mindfield" wall. Two paintings of leafless forests flank an explosion, their titles tying them into actual events – a Nazi massacre, an atomic test, a forest fire. The last group is the most mixed up, ten paintings displaying both a wide variety of painting styles and subject matter. The images range from floral close-ups to rainbows, with one painting nearly abstract but suggestive of sky and clouds, and two views of a old farmhouse, one blurry, one black and white like an old photo. I found the variety of painting styles a bit bewildering (there are at least 5), and somewhat beside the point. The images don’t make a convincing group , and probably aren’t meant to. But there are terrific moments, including a vividly imagined fire plume about to blot out a pastoral sky, and indoor flowers whose backlit structure is spookily suggestive of human blood vessels in form and color.
The fact that both images are beautiful points out the contradiction at the heart of Davidson’s exhibition, one that she repeatedly makes clear. We know that the unspoiled world gives us aesthetic pleasure, as do those parts of nature that suggest fecundity and growth. What Davidson points out here by her judicious pairings is that destruction can be beautiful too, even as it undoes the work of creation. It’s a scary, but fascinating thought, one that certainly occurred to the ancient Greeks, whose hottest couple was none other than Venus and Mars, beauty and mayhem inseparably linked, the one drawing on the energy of the other.