Rich Sources: Reference and Homage in Two Contemporary Artists, Jack Davidson and Alex Da Corte
Jack Davidson: love, mistake, promise, auto crackup, color, petal at Theodore: Art and Alex Da Corte: Die Hexe at Luxemboug & Dayan
Theodore: Art: March 7 to April 12, 2015, 56 Bogart Street, Brooklyn, 212 966 4324
Luxemboug & Dayan: February 26 to April 11, 2015, 64 East 77th Street, New York City, 212 452 4646
Two shows on view in New York this month connect in a way that I find fascinating. In almost every other respect they are night and day, quite literally in terms of the kind of light they absorb and exude, their sense, respectively, of exuberance and melancholy. The artists are Jack Davidson, a Scotsman who lives in Barcelona, whose pop-abstract paintings frolic on the walls of Theodore: Art in Bushwick, and Alex Da Corte, a Philadelphia-based installation artist who has transformed the tony Upper East Side premises of Luxembourg & Dayan into a treasure trove of appropriations.
What connects them is that they are source rich. Of course, referentiality abounds these days, and historically often has, but what really interests me about specific works in these two shows is that they are examples of what can be called the intentional double homage: quoting images that are already quotational with symbiotic effect.
Davidson is lighter in ever sense: his evenly modulated, gently hard-edged compositions favor nursery or primary hues and leave lots of white ground to bounce refreshing coolness back at the viewer. His paintings seem, on the surface, to be about surface—materially and culturally. And if there are references in play you might need to dig deep and ask questions because, although the graphic design-like solutions hint at previous lives in the mass media, such iconography doesn’t hit us over the head.
But it’s there. The show’s title, ‘love, mistake, promise, auto crackup, color, petal,’ most certainly hints at autobiographical quirkiness to defeat any suspicion that we are dealing with a neo-formalist or latter-day Constructivist. A reference-loaded iconography links him, generationally, with what has come to be called Conceptual Abstraction, a term borrowed from a historical group show so titled. This is abstraction freed from its own abstractness, from an idealistic notion of existing apart from culture and history, whether broadly conceived or internal. An artist like David Diao, who was in that 1990 exhibition, epitomizes this notion and stands comparison with the methods and moods of Davidson, although Davidson is more whimsical and pop. Davidson’s motifs invariably adopt and adapt heraldry, trade logos: coolly impersonal design solutions that are period specific and thus, potentially, steeped in personal association. can’t tell the days apart, 2014, for instance, a green outlined heart segueing into an arrow encircled in pink on a gray ground, feels borrowed and adapted from a prior life in the healthcare industry.
you said something i’ve never forgotten, 2014, is my example here of double homage. Viewers with so much as a smidgen of art history will immediately think of Kazimir Malevich and his formations in echelon of slightly skewed rectangles. But in fact the source, we can discover (at least I was able to, from conversation with the artist), is an album cover by the 1970s American rock band, Television, that was meaningful to him. There can be no doubt that Malevich is meaningful to him too. Appropriating what is already an appropriation is therefore a simple doubling up of homages – killing two birds with one stone – that allows Davidson to stake his claim to a modernist art inheritance without losing his pop cultural street cred. At once goofy and highbrow, it is a perfect postmodern gesture.
Rock music is a link between Davidson’s show and Da Corte’s as the latter’s installation, Die Hexe, exploits a historic coincidence that the Venezuela-raised Philadelphia-based artist discovered when researching the townhouse headquarters of Luxembourg & Dayan: the building was once rented to the two couples who would later form the vocal group, the Mamas and The Papas. Die Hexe weaves layer upon layer of association and affinity in ways that both channel and accommodate connections that are personal, cultural, often hermetic and sometimes purely conjectural. The band’s name triggered contemplation of the artist’s ancestry. His installation draws out and elaborates such historical flukes until the assembled jumble of juxtaposed objects reads like a genome model of the artist’s DNA.
You could say the whole piece is one endless chain of homage to homage. His intentions lead in this direction as amongst the bric-a-brac are borrowed works from other artists, generally one per section of this fastidiously structured journey of an installation, which are themselves works within an appropriationist canon. Robert Gober makes two appearances, opening and closing the show, and the placement of the first loan is a work that must be spied through an ajar door, referencing the grand papa and mama of appropriation, Marcel Duchamp. Mike Kelley and Haim Steinbach are radically decontextualized, or at least the “values” of their offerings are, when their work is placed amidst ephemera whose lowbrow provenance matches their own sources.
The example of double homage that stands striking comparison to Davidson’s is Da Corte’s placement of Bjarne Melgaard’s reworking of British Pop Artist Allen Jones in a room dominated by a decoration which is itself an appropriated appropriation, the floor to ceiling reproduction of Poussin’s Midas and Bacchus that arrives via the stage set of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1972 movie, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. The hapless king in Poussin’s painting resonates symbolically with layered acts of appropriation and its implicit curse of the alchemy. Melgaard and Poussin keep company with a neon pussy cat, a pole for erotic dancing and a “shag” (think Austin Powers) carpet. The objection can be raised, I concede, that literally borrowing a piece by Melgaard is too literal an identification to be construed as homage, except that, as an installation artist, when Da Corte borrows the work of another artist he does not do so merely in a curatorial but also in an expressive sense. He proceeds to undo the “purity” of Melgaard’s work – if any notion of purity is operative when stealing and modifying an idea that is itself appropriated, was originally sexist and is latterly possibly racist too – by placing on the back of the kneeling fiberglass and leather bound female an array of glowing tchotchkes.
Melgaard’s reworking of Jones itself has a kind of media patination. His work arrived notorious but got more so when art collector Dasha Zhukova, the girlfriend of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, had herself photographed seated on Melgaard’s chair and aroused a storm of indignation, compounded by the fact that the picture was published on Martin Luther King day. In his modification of Jones Melgaard didn’t just update the fetishistic attire of his model but changed her ethnicity, as if to cancel the possibility even of the shred of innocence in the 1960s original. To think in such terms undermines the Nietzschean aspirations of the plenty-enough transgressive Jones.
Another link proposes itself in that Jones’s furniture series grew out of an aborted collaboration with Stanley Kubrick—Jones was to have designed the Milk Bar scene of Clockwork Orange—thus connecting Jones to Poussin in the artistic-cinematic component of Da Corte’s installation. But there are channels through Da Corte-Melgaard-Jones that burrow deeper into the image banks of art history. For Jones’s audacious affront to decorum was itself a highly original fusion of sources high and low. The base – literally and morally – comes from bondage porn of Irving Klaw/Bette Page vintage, Eric Stanton being a particular favorite for Jones, while the more edifying allusion is to high modernist design of the same mid-century moment, in particular Isamu Noguchi’s table where a glass sheet sits astride voluptuously biomorphic wooden limbs. These are the great-great-mamas-and-papas at the Da Corte nuptials of high and low, at least of this fragment of them.