The Naughton Gallery at Queens hosted Davidson’s ‘large heads’ from 4th September until 6th October 2013. All exhibits were reproduced in a catalogue with a lively forward by Simon Callow and Conversation with Shan McAnena.
Davidson proposed to explore large heads as landscapes of the sitter’s “inner Self”. The analogy to landscape is significant, not just for the obvious metaphor. Davidson happens to work in series, like seascapes, urban architecture, reflections in shop windows etc. The landscape – or equivalent- is the umbrella theme for serial paintings, resolutely positioning him as a viewer of something greater and accessible in the public domain. Thus selecting celebrities, well known personalities is analogous to his previous work. Interestingly, the seascapes were on smaller scale than the urban vista, and the heads now received greater than life scale, akin the large mythological or biblical frescoes, or monuments.
The scale mirrors the public status of the sitters, offering also relaxation from minute detailing and subtle tonality. Portrait of a known person provides familiarity with some shared knowledge, whether true or false. And it is also threatened by it. People are easily and often uncritically sharing information about persons who are known as artists, writers, musicians, footballers, actors etc. Donaldson assumes his responsibility not to deviate from the likeness, while proposing to know the sitter’s “inner self”, the “spirit”
How may he access that which is not spontaneously available during a brief encounter and how he the paint offers to embody it?
The expressionist divided brushstroke is commanded to hold the appearance near the known image of the sitter, yet to depart from descriptive verism. Being true but admitting loss of something. The faces which these paintings emanate are both there and withdrawn. The withdrawal is not a violent sealing off, nor is it a void. When things are not reducible to perception (e.g.the “inner self “) they affect each other as cause and effect. Hence the fully saturated brush cris-crosses other traces, working the skin on and off, like in Titian’s Marsyas. The hues are odd, pitched dissonantly, slightly mad, strictly in harnes to diligence, patience and commitment. Some passages are a thick paste, others thinned so that they run out of control. The questionable greenish yellowish flat area on the left of Seamus Heaney’s face is indefensibly whimsical.
It feels like a sign of dissatisfaction with the formulaic mannerism that keeps defining all sitters eyes, and seeping through into the relationship between the abstract horizontally articulated background and the heads chiseled out of snaking hues.
It is helpful to compare drawings with painted versions to see how Davidson achieved his goal.
The charcoal and pencil being dry techniques, allow speedy continuum in building the appearance and thus offering the painter’s mind time and energy to spy on the hidden.
Reminiscent of Heraclitus: “Nature loves to hide”.
From all the paintings in this exhibition only the last two aspire to the drawing’s spirituality. Both have their sitters interested in something diagonally away from the possible, imagined or real lens. Believably engrossed in their own thoughts, or intensely listening. The mysterious left its traces here.
Images courtesy the artist.