Mirrors, Doubles and Speculative Space: Paul Davies’ Art of Connection

Paul Davies’ works are visually stunning: the eye is irresistibly drawn to their intricate surfaces. His paintings are created from a process involving a highly detailed collage of elements, starting with painted or photographic surfaces, overlaid by stencilled forms, which together create the final image. His works on paper are derived in part from a photographic process of exposing light sensitive emulsion on paper to light. Other works that record the process behind the creation of the paintings are likewise a sum of their constituent parts. The sculptures that feature the forms of trees and the architectural shapes of houses, are as much defined by what is not there, as what is.

In essence, Davies’ art explores the ways images are made and how they are produced from a history of influences, impressions and interconnections.  

Paul Davies, Untitled 12  2016.
Acrylic and vinyl copolymer on canvas , 153 x 122 cm

The conceptual artist, writer and theorist Warren Neidich argues that “…each culture as it exists in its own time and place is defined by a hegemony of interrelating and networking immaterial relations such as sociologic connectedness, unconscious psychological reasons, economic forces and political intrigues that bind its members together [that together] define it.” [1]. Neidich suggests that any place, the people within it, their multitude of histories, imaginations and desires, can’t be reduced or constrained to a simple geographic location – every point in a network of connections is in turn connected to many more. 

For Davies, this idea has been a central concept for his work. As an expat-Australian artist now resident in Los Angeles, the threads of his trans-Pacific aesthetic have been drawn together through his wide range of interests. The unexpected resonances of the connected history of California and New South Wales are evidenced for the artist in unexpected physical ways, such as the stands of Australian gum trees that were planted in Los Angeles during the gold rush decades in the middle decades of the 19th century, that were used at one time as timber for railway sleepers, and are now planted as wind breaks next to LA’s highways.  

Davies is acutely interested in the way modernist architecture can be rendered through his process of using hard-cut stencils on canvas which are themselves repeatable units that can be reconfigured again and again into pictures that are at once complete, yet are also part of a long series. These paintings have attracted considerable interest with a number of commercial and museum exhibitions, some works installed in-situ within the types of Modernist houses that have long intrigued Davies. And as Davies’ work has become more visible, the interest in his work by the media has also increased. 

A magazine image of Davies’ work hanging on the clean white walls of Sothern Californian houses produces a strange kind of doubling. Davies’ recent paintings of houses explore the modular quality of classic modernist architecture, which, to the untrained eye, looks completely generic; buildings constructed from rectangles and squares, contained by metal beams, with generous floor-to-ceiling windows, cantilevered roofs, palette-shaped swimming pools, with obligatory diving boards, and of course, palm trees, lots of palm trees.  It’s a dream of Californian cool, and even if there are many such dreams, with many such features, all very similar to each other – no matter – that does not make them any less desirable. 

Another connective point between the states of California and New South Wales can be found in the figure of that infamous self-promoter and extravagant fabulist Edward Hargraves, who had sailed from Sydney to California on July 17, 1849, to find his fortune on the other side of the Pacific. He was back in Australia two years later having had no luck on the fields there, but with some creative invention, Hargraves set himself up as the discoverer of gold around what is now Ophir, NSW. He also brought back with him knowledge of American gold panning techniques, and the construction of the California Cradle, a device used to wash gold from river sediment, both of which were used on the Bathurst region goldfields. 

The use of this basic but effective technology was hugely consequential, not just for the fortunes of gold that were sluiced out of the region’s rivers, but for how they helped physically alter the landscape itself. Davies’ interest in this transformation can be seen in the series of works that depict Golden Gully, the old gold panning site near Hill End, NSW.  Through a combination of digging, panning, and ‘rocking’ [the term used to describe the use of the California cradle] what was once a peaceful bush creek-side idyll was transformed into a startling series of erosions, the most famous of which, a high bridge of dirt and rock between two bluffs, is seen in Davies’ paintings, built up from a photograph double-printed on to the surface of the canvas, with three layers of stenciling on top. 

Paul Davies, Everything Loose Will Land in LA / Double Golden Gully 2  2017
UV cured ink and acrylic on canvas , 122 x 183cm.

The title of the series, Everything Loose Will Land in LA/Double Golden Gully [2017] suggests a whole series of trans-Pacific associations. The first part of the title refers to a famous quip by venerated Modernist architect Frank Lloyd Wright who exclaimed, ‘tip the world over on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles’. Given Davies own relocation to LA from NSW, this is an ironic joke on his own arrival there, but it also suggests that talent and good fortune are inevitably drawn to the centre of creative capital.

The title also alludes to another iconic work of art, the photograph Double Standard [1961] by actor-artist Dennis Hopper, which shows the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard, Melrose Avenue, and North Doheny Drive in Los Angeles. One might also think of other great works of contemporary art that have used stencils and silk screens such as Andy Warhol’s Double Elvis and Double Marilyn [both 1963]. And of course the double, golden arches also suggest another cultural import from California, the world-dominating fast food chain McDonald’s.  Like the literal layering processes that Davies’ uses to create his works, the canvases are built up from layer upon layer of reference and allusion. 

One of the key visual elements of Davies’ paintings and prints is the use of vertical lines. In the Golden Gully pictures, the slender lines of the local gum trees create a visual dynamic that keeps the eye moving up and down the picture in an attempt to resolve the patterning of trunks, trees and branches. Of course, no such resolution is possible, and the layering of paint upon photographic print produces a kind of camouflage-like pattern of tones. It’s a dynamic that Davies’ has explored in his LA house pictures where the form of a generic palm tree will stand at angles to a house, and are reflected in the swimming pool by a simple inversion of the stencil. 

Like most elements of Davies’ works, the trees themselves have a conceptual purpose. The artist sees the gum trees that grow in both NSW and California as metaphors for a process of cultural transportation, where speculative economies of the gold rush, the entertainment industry, and tourism produce boom-bust industries that, in turn, attract vast numbers of people forming social groups around those industries, be it the gold fields, or Hollywood studios. This collision of elements echoes the uncertainty of geographic and cultural identities.  While the Central West of NSW may not have as many palm trees as Los Angeles, Davies has fun with the idea of juxtaposing Australian gum trees – based on an image of trees from Jervis Bay – with the iconic minimalist white boxes of So-Cal Modernism. 

One cannot consider Davies’ work without noticing the repetition of mirroring. It’s most evident in the architectural paintings where swimming pools mirror the houses, trees and skies. As the cognitive psychologists Phillipe Rochat and Dan Zahavi note, “…mirrors are peculiar objects associated with peculiar, uncanny experiences. Myths and superstitions about mirrors abound [and] stories involving mirrors are typically unsettling. Mirrors are seen as providing more than mere reflections, casting souls and spirits, endowed with the potential power to trap them.” [2]. With their dark skies dotted with the familiar stars of the Crux constellation and its central Southern Cross the viewer’s eye is drawn once more into the inky depths of the pool. Like Narcissus, it feels that in this uncertain picture of contingent forms, one may be lost forever. 

Paul Davies, Digital vs Analogue  2013
Corten steel , 195 x 120cm x 60cm

The absence of material is at the heart of Davies’ sculptures. Like many of his other works, the free-standing sculptures were created by first creating a stencil based on a photograph, one being the outline of tree trunks and branches, and the other a perspective shot of a modernist building. These works stand upright and create their ‘image’ from absences, in the case of Digital vs. Analogue [2013] the voids between the corten steel correlating with the space around the solid form of tree.  And in an interesting connection, when the sculptures are placed outside, the slow play of light across them as the day progresses produces another images on the ground and walls – the shadowy image of the solid form. 

Davies has also experimented extensively with using his stencils to produce images beyond their initial intended function. This includes a series of works where heavy paper was coated with light sensitive emulsion and exposed to light with the stencil laid on top. Other works have used the same process but deployed photographic paper instead. The results are ghostly impressions of things at several steps remove – cut-outs based on trees in Australia that produce a negative image on paper conjured into being by the sun. 

The clouding and colour changes of the papers, and the impression of an image within, produce remarkable connections and allusions to the history of early photography. Davies’ experiments with outdoor light contact prints – where the light source is the environment itself – are reminiscent of Josef Nicéphore Niépce’s View from the Window at Le Gras taken in 1826.  Although the connection may be incidental, it’s another of the rhizomatic connections that grow out and connect from the work to the world at large.  

Then again, perhaps it’s not so coincidental. Davies’ works are dependent, like photography, on the intensity of light to produce their final ‘intensity of image’ and like Nicéphore Niépce and the countless others that have followed, Davies’ work shares an interest and fascination with the navigation and recording of space with technology. 

The photo collage series We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live gives many of the stencils Davies has used a final form – stuck together with masking tape and re-photographed on the studio floor. They look temporary, easily crushed or broken. Yet these images too somehow coalesce into images. The title of Davies’ series comes from the first line of The White Album, an essay by Joan Didion, that great chronicler of Southern California, who reflected on the way we build a story for ourselves from multiple sources and influences. “We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices,” she wrote. “We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria, which is our actual experience.” [3]

Davies’ ideas of connection and association find form in the works in this show, pieces that reflect upon and elaborate on the vast array of possible interpretations. The world might not actually be like this, as Didion argues, yet the persuasiveness of Davies’ work suggests this is a an intriguing way to imagine it. 

Endnotes

[1] Warren Neidich, Blow up: Photography, Cinema and the Brain, D.A.P. and the University of California, Riverside, 2003.

[2] Phillipe Rochat and Dan Zahavi, ‘The uncanny mirror: A re-framing of mirror self-experience’, Consciousness and Cognition 20 (2011) 204–213 

[3] Joan Didion, The White Album. 1979. New York: Simon & Schuster

Published for Paul Davies, The Golden Days, Bathurst Regional Gallery, February 7th to March 22nd, 2020. It was also published in Artist Profile in a slightly different form.

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