BY: NANCY PRINCENTHAL — SEPTEMBER, 2020
Catalogue essay for Lisa Corinne Davis: All Shook Up, Pamela Salisbury Gallery, Hudson, NY, October 9 – November 2, 2020
All Shook Up
Painting is, by its nature, stubborn. It’s a way to carve out a space of exception to contemporary modes of communication, which as everyone knows are fleet and fugitive, massively networked and hyper-extendedly flexible. Meanwhile paint on canvas remains as it ever was: static, material, refractory. A canny abstractionist, Lisa Corinne Davis manages to have it both ways. Alert to the digital web in which we’re all caught, our embodiment sucked out of us as remorselessly as flies caught in spider spit, she is at the same time an ardent believer in the power of paint in all its irrefutable, sensual physicality.
While she has moved away from the real-world references of her early work (some of it explicitly figure-based), Davis nonetheless draws on the scaffolding of digital life: her paintings depict nets, nodes and portals, careening lines and implacable firewalls. The space they create, like that behind the screen of an electronic device, is indefinite, extra-dimensional. As she describes it, “You’re never in a place where you’re sure where you are. You’re not sure where the back of the painting is—you don’t know how far it goes.” In the title of one recent painting, Deceit Disinformation, she warns of gaping potholes in the information highway. Increasingly in her paintings, networks buckle, systems crash.
But Davis’s allusions are hardly restricted to the digital world: her paintings’ nets could as easily be those of fishing, or of construction sites—or the linear armatures of maps. Pixels are also mosaics; circuitry is not always electronic; sound waves have profiles as pronounced as electrical ones. Non-negotiable, however, is the process by which the work comes about. That “the paintings begin on canvas, with paint,” Davis says, is absolutely fundamental. The “moves taken” concern whether the marks will be fast or slow, geometric or fluid, color-saturated or not. Her paintings grow according to a strictly additive process, one mark following the next, rather than arising in formal drawings or even sketches. Although the finished work contains fairly explosive energy, Davis is, she explains, “a slow painter. It takes me a long time to determine what goes next.” Spills are allowed, considered, enhanced, even given slight depth, both illusionistic and physical. Or, they are dispensed with, partially or wholly. Sometimes the process involves scraping nearly everything away, providing a new surface on which to resume, mark by mark. Carroll Dunham, an artist whom Davis admires, has described his own work in terms that serve hers as well: “Painting responds to painting; the world doesn’t help very much, but leakage occurs between the dimensions.”[i]
That leakage seeps into Davis’s poetic titles, often alliterative and punning, which sometimes refer to emotional states (fervor, delirium), and sometimes to cognitive positions (skepticism, mendacity). She aims to explore “how comfortable we are with flux,” how much “we want identity to be fixed.” More specifically, she wrestles, as a woman of color, with the presumptions made about race and its relationship to cultural production. “Many African-American artists feel the obligation to represent Blackness. My position as an abstract painter allows me to manifest my own sense of self—my Black self—as an expression of self-determination and freedom, while avoiding an oppositional stance. I do not believe this position is ‘post-racial’ since I am not sure that that is possible,” she wrote recently. “I do not want to negate discussions of race and racism in art, but I do want to open the conversation by detaching Blackness from a narrow racial term, allowing it to be more pliable.”[ii]
Among the artists with whom she feels an affinity are (in addition to Dunham) Carrie Moyer, Thomas Nozkowski, Gary Stephan and Jack Whitten —eccentric abstractionists all. One of the premises of fully abstract painting, as it emerged in the early twentieth century, was that its language was universal, a presumption that has long since been discredited. Every language is constrained, culturally and personally, and abstraction is no exception. Preferences for—and symbolic associations to—such basic elements as color, line, and spatial organization shift from one place and time to another, one individual to the next. (Of course, the visual terms of “realism” are just as variable.) It can be said that one of Davis’s achievements is to celebrate the riotously polyglot nature of abstract painting. Balking the effortless mechanisms of contemporary global communication, she offers a new, unique and splendidly intransigent language for expressing—and sharing— human experience.
[i] Carroll Dunham, “Dead, Yellow. Mule. Garbage, Ratio. Giant.,” in Into Words: The Selected Writings of Carroll Dunham (New York, Badlands Unlimited, 2017), p. 100.
[ii] Lisa Corinne Davis, “Towards a More Fluid definition of Blackness,” Art Critical, October 26, 2016. http://www.artcritical.com/2016/10/26/towards-fluid-definition-blackness/
Otherwise unattributed quotes of the artist are from a conversation with the author on December 4, 2017.