New York painter Ian Davis articulates his ideas about technology, authority and individual human agency with such a succinct visual vocabulary that critics have often focused on the artist's cleverness without approaching the real and sometimes creepy depths of his work. "They [the paintings] are funny and fun to look at and they make you think," Roberta Smith wrote in The New York Times, "but their fussy scale also makes them feel like big, clever illustrations that would be as effective in reproduction as on a wall."
It's undeniable that there is an inherent cuteness to Davis' style. The elements of his pictorial grammar include huge vistas — carefully rendered interior and exterior scenes — and large crowds of identically dressed little men who are dwarfed by their stupefying surroundings. Technology manifests in renderings of machinery and in the collective preoccupation of the figures in the paintings. "It's about the vague institutional space," Davis says of the architecture he paints. "The figures seem so small when they're overwhelmed by their institution."
Many of the paintings have the hushed quality of expectancy. In "Pact," men in black suits convene in an implausibly large conference room, their hands folded in front of them in anticipation or resignation. In "Auditorium," the crowd and an array of spotlights focus on an empty lectern. As in his other paintings, Davis has articulated numerous individuals, but the work conveys an ominous single entity. The scale of his interiors suggests the overwhelming authority of a collective — one that he says makes his antlike little people "victims." The images suggest scenes, but Davis avoids storytelling and therefore defies simple categorization as an illustrator.
"Physicians," one of the pieces in Faith in the Future, his Kansas City debut show at Kemper at the Crossroads, encapsulates in one striking, wintry image the themes that Davis has been pursuing over the past decade. A crowd of little men in white lab coats has gathered inside a cavernous exhibit hall around a machine displayed on a stone pedestal. The carefully wrought chamber overwhelms the figures. The tall vertical windows beyond reveal bare trees draped subtly with a mysterious colored cable. Closer inspection reveals that this line snakes through the backgrounds of many Davis paintings.
"I don't remember what the machine is," Davis says of the assembly of gears, rotors and pistons at the center of "Physicians." The photo he used as a reference came from old World's Fair images. "I painted the interior. Then I painted all their feet — that helps to figure out how all the figures are positioned — then the legs, then the coats." The machine, which looks unnervingly still, came last. "I knew where the focal point was going to be, but I didn't know exactly what it was going to be until the end," he says. "Often, the central focus comes last."
At the heart of Davis' work is the conventional wisdom that new technology equals progress. But Davis' suspicion of technology motivates much of his work, including many of the pieces in this show. When it's pointed out to him that his detailing of the black iron machine in "Physicians" is as reverential as the gaze of the painting's people, he just shrugs. "Well, that's just me working on it until it looks right," he says. As it happens, Davis' relationship with technology is way more complicated.
In "Excavation," the exhibit's true knockout, another lab-coated crowd — this time archaeologists — has uncovered an enormous wooden ark deep in the ground. Gathered around the trench, some of the men angle beams from their helmet lamps into the biblical-looking vessel. Others operate a diesel crane ready to hoist artifacts from the wreckage. Among the most recent of the exhibit's paintings, it's also the most accomplished and convincing of Davis' exteriors. His layered paint washes convey a rich topography that contrasts the smooth surfaces of the crane's cab and boom.
"When I was working on it, a friend came to visit the studio," Davis says. "He saw the painting and pointed out that the big excavated ship looked like a vagina. And, well, I didn't think I was painting a big vagina." But his friend's comment haunted him, and one night Davis realized exactly what he'd painted. His wife had recently given birth to their son, and her labor had been problematic and difficult. "Without the direct intervention of science and technology, my son probably wouldn't be here, and my wife might not be here," he says. "So of course I painted a group of scientists using their technological equipment to pull something from deep underground."