By Mark Stockton
Chris Davison is a Philadelphia-based artist, currently sharing a two-person studio in the Crane building in Kensington. His mixed-media drawings explore an ever-evolving ‘psycho-mythological’ world culled from his sub-conscious and daily experiences. Throughout March, Chris and I discussed his most recent work, views on drawing, and fascination with Art History.
Mark Stockton: I want to start our interview with this idea of identifying one’s own practice as drawing. Where do you place yourself and studio practice in relation to this qualifier? Does it matter?
Christopher Davison: In general I align myself more with drawing than painting. I agree with the standard definitions: drawing relying more on line and painting relying more on shape. Still, what really makes something a drawing to me has more to do with its construction. There is something essentially candid about the way drawings reveal their history. Even when viewing a painting in which process is playing an important role, what I often find myself responding to is the impressiveness of the end result. Perhaps there is something so approachable and utilitarian about “line” that when we see a drawing, we cannot help but contemplate how it was used to construct. The great drawers from art history are like magicians showing off how their tricks are performed. Despite the insight, when the trick is done well we still get the sinking sensation we have just witnessed something unreal or impossible. It’s the tension between showing all your cards and pulling off the illusion that I am attracted to.
MS: You bring up this interesting idea of witnessing the unreal. Your work consistently contains a figurative component embedded within a surreal environment based in materiality and mark-making. What is the inspiration for your subject matter?
CD: The imagery is derived from memory. Drawing from reference is often about capturing a singular moment in time, whereas working from memory allows me to simultaneously portray several disparate moments. All of the memories are from my life, waking or otherwise. If the work appears mythological or supernatural it’s probably due to way that memory allows various modes of perception to mesh together. For example, one drawing may combine the memory of an interesting person that I saw on the subway, an animal with a human face that I met in a dream, and an exotic location that I read about in a book. Ultimately, subject matter is more important during the earlier phases of a drawing where it’s used to give the composition a sense of direction and meaning. As a work develops the central focus becomes shape, color, and pattern.
MS: One of the interesting things about your overarching body of work is that even though it goes through different phases of both form and materiality (print-making, pen and ink, color pencil, water colors, oil painting, animation, and so on…) the visual vernacular still remains unmistakably particular to you. How do you retain a consistent voice in this wide range of media? How does process inform your personal language?
CD: When I start a new piece I work myself into a state of mind where mark making is the result of an overwhelming sense of urgency, and formal decisions occur at a primal or unconscious level. It’s like the rudimentary “fight or flight” part of my brain is doing all the work and I’m just relying on instinct. To complete a piece I have to be in complete control of pattern, shape and color. But to start a piece I try to remove my conscious self from the process as much as possible. The consistency in visual vernacular is probably a result of this “removal.” It’s as if the unconscious self has a unique aesthetic fingerprint that leaves its impression from one piece to the next.
MS: As apparent in both your studio and tumblr page, you often work on many pieces simultaneously. When do you know or get the feeling that a work is complete? Are there cast-aways?
CD: By developing several things at the same time, the work begins to have a dialogue with itself; each piece suggesting possibilities for the next. Part of my job in the studio is to listen to that dialogue. I know something is complete when I step back from it and the urge to add, subtract, or otherwise change something is absent. I’m always a bit surprised or taken off-guard when I arrive at that moment. If the feeling holds true for a couple of days, then I know things are done. Sometimes a piece is finished after only a day or so, while other times it can take weeks, months, or even years. There are rarely cast-aways, but it’s quite common to paint over particularly irksome passages or entire pieces.
MS: You’ve spoken about the urgency behind starting a new drawing. Does all of your work get made in your studio, or does the urge to make find it’s way back into your home?
CD: The inspiration to start drawing can hit me at the most random times throughout the day. It’s the urge to flesh out form or an arrangement of forms. Any small shaky sketches done at home, or when I’m out for a walk can then be transferred to larger surfaces back in the studio for more in-depth study. This allows drawing to be about being in the world instead of being in my isolated studio.
MS: On my visit, we talked about our mutual interest in being “art history geeks” and travelling to see some fairly obscure shows in person. Who are your current ‘old school’ favorites?
CD: The artists that inspire me are the ones who deal with the dynamic tensions between life and death, light and dark, creation and destruction. A short list includes Lucas Cranach The Elder, Goya, William Blake, Durer, Leonardo da Vinci, Donatello, Otto Dix, Giotto, Picasso, Egon Schielle, Grunewald, El Greco, Martin Schongauer, Brueghel, etc. For the record I look at a lot of contemporary artists as well, but the bulk of the inspiration for my art is derived from the work of the old masters.
Christopher Davison is an artist who lives, works and teaches in Philadelphia. He received his MFA in 2006 from Tyler School of Art and is represented by Mark Moore Gallery in Los Angeles.