Book Review – The Art of James Davis

Before reading The Art of James Davis I had never heard of the man. Flicking through the handsome volume of his work, the lurid colours and dreamlike torsos seemed to challenge just about everything I had experienced of Australian visual art. As Ashley Crawford’s book sat on my desk during the week leading up to writing this review, numerous passers by were lured in by the bold primary shock of Davis’s Hellgate (1989) on the front cover. It became immediately clear that this was an artist that demanded attention.

The story Crawford weaves is of an unconventional Australian. When the rest of the visual art community was firmly locked in the strict if sparse rigors of post modernism, Davis was sticking to his guns. He continually developed his chaotic, visceral style using the old fashioned medium of paint. When others were stripping back in a race to the zero point of meaning, Davis added more to his panels, more cynicism, more whimsey, more darkness and more humour.

In the eighties his chosen subject matter and medium earned him little attention from the art world. After fifteen years in the wilderness of newspaper graphic design, Davis’ phoenix like return to the art world is an impressive and challenging statement of artistic determination and integrity.

His city work often depicts the psychological warfare of the daily grind. His darker canvases skewer the immoral and spiritually weak. The symbolism is familiar, but the sharp contrasts, naive figuration and urban subject matter make Davis a difficult addition in the pantheon of Australian visual artists.

This is an outsider of the most virulent kind. The forceful vision of the world is not easily digestible. Davis’ work is a collection of contradictions. Incisive detail sits next to childlike scrawl. The viewer strays to thoughts about power and the moral landscape of a species surrounded by metal and concrete.

Ashley Crawford’s book does an admirable job of unveiling the intention and background of this independent and forceful artist. Paintings that first appeared difficult and abrasive soon become intriguing. Crawford’s clarity allows the paintings to open up before the reader. Each new page brings another variation, another panel and greater insight into the symbolic work and its relevance to the artist’s unique experience.

In a time of austerity and in the wake of the great vacuum of post modernity, James Davis gives us something to look at. He gives it all to us, unashamedly and with a lust for life and non conformity. He bullishly thrusts his underworld in our faces. The city is full of threats to our sanity and morals, but so too is it a place of humanity and compassion. Davis has been saying this for years and The Art of James Davis is an excellent guide to his vocabulary.

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The Art of James Davis by Ashley Crawford


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