Posted by: Samantha Roppelt, Class of 2012, Art Studio Major
Ian Maclean Davis is an artist who lives and works in Baltimore, Maryland. Using various processes and materials, he creates drawings and paintings dealing with appropriated images. Layering colors and lines, Davis addresses memory and how an initial image or visual is skewed over time.
[Samantha Roppelt]: When viewing your work, you come to realize it contains recognizable images amongst layers of organic lines and bold colors. The formal elements of your work are so tightly interwoven at times; it creates a tension between competing information. Can you describe your work process and how you develop this imagery?
[Ian Davis]: Process is difficult for me to discuss, because when you’re doing it, it seems like it’s all happening at the same time. It’s hard to break it down into a chronology. I work from appropriated images that have meaning to me. Sometimes that choice of image is intended to function as a trigger of recognition for the viewer. But, through layering different images, or the same image atop itself, often the source is distorted enough that I cannot reasonably expect anyone to recognize the originals. I can only hope that a sense of it remains. I try to create a dynamic between that cumulative abstraction and the degree of image recognition.
Sometimes, the image comes first, and size, format and materials are spun off of that. Other times – if I want to make small drawings, for instance – I try to find a subject image that will translate to that format and medium. Further, other times I’m working from a thematic subject, such as album covers or figuration, and everything else follows that choice.
I also pre-visualize the work digitally. Any image I start with is processed through multiple graphics programs, but the final work is made rendered by hand. It varies greatly from piece-to-piece as to how much of this digital process is retained in the finished work. Really, I’m making paintings based on my designs, but I’m not painting my designs. The designs are an under-painting. I like for the work to evolve at every step.
[SR]: When you visited my drawing class as a guest lecturer in Spring of 2011, you described your work as having layers both literally and figuratively. In terms of figuratively, you used a metaphor about the “layers of a joke”? Would you mind going into detail about this and describing how you expect viewers to react to your work?
[ID]: I’ll address the last point first. I hope that the viewer’s reaction to the work is of intrigue and interest. If they recognize my source, that’s always a good hook, but I hope they find more to discover in the work. “I feel like there’s something there I should recognize, but I can’t quite put my finger on it” is my favorite reaction. It addresses the subject of memories – remembering something they once saw. Ultimately, my work is about my memory (factual & fuzzy), so trying to connect with someone else’s visual/idea retention seems appropriate.
Contemporary Art can be compared to Humor, in that with each, success is subjective and predicated on what your audience knows and is willing to accept. Certain presumptions can be made about what people will respond to. A joke can be funny just from the delivery of the line, just as a painting can be beautiful exclusively in how paint is applied. Additional content is not always required, or necessary. The specific example you’re asking me about is a comment comedian Dennis Miller made probably sometime in the early 1990’s. When asked how he constructs his jokes, he said (I’m paraphrasing from memory) he tries to build layers of reference in the jokes to meet different members of his audience; the first might be recognizable to most of the audience, a second to only half, and a third reference that only he and one other person in the room understands. A lot of artists work this way; building critique, references and other content into the work that may not be immediately apparent. I always admired the multi-level approach Miller describes, in that there’s an initial appealing element, which builds into something complex as he adds more and more arcane juxtapositions. At that point, there’s real potential for the work to transcend just being about a reference that people recognize.
Working from popular imagery, such as from advertising, movies and art history, I see a danger of completely relying on a reference to give artwork meaning, with no other angle on the subject. For this reason, I feel an obligation to transform and synthesize the images into something else. To return to the comedy metaphor, a pratfall is always funny, just as harmonious colors are beautiful. Also, reference to something already familiar is reassuring and appealing. I cannot only rely on a visual hook to justify and be the content of my work. Relying on familiarity can result in work like that of Mr. Brainwash (“Exit Through The Gift Shop”), who uses appropriation the way “Family Guy” uses pop culture references for humor rather than actual jokes. There is a lot of appeal and comfort in familiarity. That can make us chuckle. One of my goals is to give my work the potential for more than a chuckle of recognition.
[SR]: Since 2005 there has been a major transition in the size scale of the majority of your paintings. Has this shift in size changed more than just the formal impact of your work?
[ID]: I think scale and format have always been things that shift in the work, depending upon where my head is at, and what resources are available. These sorts of changes evolve from necessity, among many other factors. I completed some of my largest pieces in graduate school, when I could take advantage of the available time, space and budget for large work. But I also made many small fine-line drawings at that same time that I don’t often show. A few years ago, I started my smallest work, the white pen-and-ink drawings. I had moved out of a sizable live/work space and into a small studio apartment, to which I needed to adjust and make new work. The most surprising aspect of switching to pen and ink was how physically difficult it was. I had not held a dip-pen in my hand in many, many years. So, there was a re-training period for my hand because of skill I had lost over those years. Several paintings I made from that same time nearly abandoned line-work entirely; the small drawings freed me to experiment with other approaches. I guess the answer to your question is – YES – these changes in scale and medium lead to different results across the board. Moreover, I’ve always believed that the size, shape and scale of an art object holds potential for content. It’s important to me to consider the phenomenology of being in the presence of the work. I always try to tie together the ideas, presentation and format of the pieces, so I suppose they mutate each other all the time.
[SR]: In your email, you included a photograph of three studies that you’re currently working on and it appears to be similar to your other work, but what I find interesting is its lack of a figurative focal point. Is there a figure concealed by the intricate line work? How are these similar and/or different from your previous work?
[ID]: Sometimes I do make a very conscious decision to include the figure, but more often than not, you could say it’s almost a coincidence. Some of the time, I’m choosing my source images for figurative content. Other times, I’m choosing images that happen to include figures, but the real content I’m looking at is in the overall composition and the symbolism of what the image means to me, or to the culture at large.
The 3 recent studies are different for me – I don’t usually do “studies.” My definition: work done as prep for other, more ambitious pieces. As much as I change my materials, I have a tendency to be experimental and not research using new methods before diving into a big project. Thanks to that impulse, I am surrounded a fair amount of half-completed work. These small paintings are “true” studies. They are sections of 3 larger compositions that I’m developing; tests in handling materials and making marks. In fact… these larger compositions do have figurative elements. We will see how well they read when they are complete…
[SR]: Our readers are interested in the arts in some shape or form, but as a senior art studio student with an impending graduation, I would like to ask if you have any advice for artists who are entering the contemporary scene.
[ID]: The contemporary scene is something way bigger than my scope at this point, but I can offer suggestions based on my own experience. Continue to make work. I found that difficult, as a part of the full-time workforce. The biggest hurdle I had was finding a way to be my own best/worst critic, and setting my own goals. Until then, school had provided so much of that structure for me. It always helps to find or remain connected to a community that has similar goals as you do. That may materialize in surprising ways as you adjust to more diverse goals and challenges. Be open to these changes. For many years, I abandoned painting and drawing, but I had a core belief that I would return to them, and that the digital/collage work I was doing would lead me back in that direction. Allow your ideas to evolve, be brave and keep learning. Finally, if your goal is to be a professional, behave as professionally as you wish to be considered, and show your work as much as you can, wherever you can.