Posts Tagged ‘John Davis River

03
Oct
10

Review: ‘John Davis: Presence’ at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 6th August – 24th October 2010

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Many thanxk to Alison Murray, Jemma Altmeier and The National Gallery of Victoria for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image. There is also another John Davis exhibition in Melbourne at the moment at Arc One Gallery until 16th October 2010

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“In reality, I make one work over my life, so that when it’s all finished, there are a number of parts or contributions to an overall piece, each linking to another in some way.”

John Davis, 1989

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John Davis
Australia 1936–99
Journey extended
1982
wood, twigs, calico, bituminous paint, paper, adhesive, cotton thread
(a-b) 35.0 x 60.0 x 610.0 cm (installation)
Private collection, Melbourne
© Penelope Davis & Martin Davis. Administered by VISCOPY, Australia

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John Davis
Australia 1936–99
Collection 128
1996
twigs, cotton thread, calico
107.0 x 65.0 x 13.0 cm
Private collection, Melbourne
© Penelope Davis & Martin Davis. Administered by VISCOPY, Australia

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John Davis
Australia 1936–99
(Spotted fish)
1989
twigs, cotton thread, calico, bituminous paint
55.0 x 145.0 x 30.0 cm
Private collection, Melbourne
© Penelope Davis & Martin Davis. Administered by VISCOPY, Australia

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This is a superlative survey exhibition of the work of John Davis at NGV Australia, Melbourne.

In the mature work you can comment on the fish as ‘travellers’ or ‘nomads’, “a metaphor for people and the way we move around the world.” You can observe the caging, wrapping and bandaging of these fish as a metaphor for the hurt we humans impose on ourselves and the world around us. You can admire the craftsmanship and delicacy of the constructions, the use of found objects, thread, twigs, driftwood and calico and note the ironic use of bituminous paint in relation to the environment, “a sticky tar-like form of petroleum that is so thick and heavy,”1 of dark and brooding colour.

This is all well and true. But I have a feeling when looking at this work that here was a wise and old spirit, one who possessed knowledge and learning.

Since one of his last works was titled ‘Kōan’ (1999, see image below), a story “the meaning of which cannot be understood by rational thinking but may be accessible through intuition,”2 I would like to use a quotation from Carlos Castaneda and ‘The Teachings of Don Juan’ as an allegorical statement about the work and, more inclusively, about the human journey to knowledge and the attaining of a state of grace in one’s life.

Although I didn’t know John Davis I have a feeling from his work that he attained such a state. Stick with the quotation for it is through this journey that we relate to ourselves and world around us. The stuff of legend.

Marcus Bunyan for the Art Blart blog

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“‘When a man starts to learn, he is never clear about his objectives. His purpose is faulty; his intent is vague. He hopes for rewards that will never materialize, for he knows nothing of the hardships of learning.

‘He slowly begins to learn – bit by bit at first, then in big chunks. And his thoughts soon clash. What he learns is never what he pictured, or imagined, and so he begins to be afraid. Learning is never what one expects. Every step of learning is a new task, and the fear the man is experiencing begins to mount mercilessly, unyieldingly. His purpose becomes a battlefield.

‘And thus he has stumbled upon the first of his natural enemies : Fear! A terrible enemy – treacherous, and difficult to overcome. It remains concealed at every turn of the way, prowling, waiting. And if the man, terrified in its presence, runs away, his enemy will have put an end to his quest.’

‘What will happen to the man if he runs away in fear?’

‘Nothing happens to him except that he will never learn. He will never become a man of knowledge. He will perhaps be a bully or a harmless, scared man; at any rate, he will be a defeated man. His first enemy will have put an end to his cravings.’

‘And what can he do to overcome fear?’

‘The answer is very simple. He must not run away. He must defy his fear, and in spite of it he must take the next step in learning, and the next, and the next. He must be fully afraid, and yet he must not stop. That is the rule! And a moment will come when his first enemy retreats. The man begins to feel sure of himself. His intent becomes stronger. Learning is no longer a terrifying task.

‘When this joyful moment comes, then he can say without hesitation that he has defeated his first natural enemy.’

‘Does it happen at once, don Juan, or little by little?’

‘It happens little by little, and yet the fear is vanquished suddenly and fast.’

‘But won’t the man be afraid again if something new happens to him?’

‘No. Once a man has vanquished fear, he is free from it for the rest of his life because, instead of fear, he has acquired clarity – a clarity of mind which erases fear. By then a man knows his desires; he knows how to satisfy those desires. He can anticipate the new steps of learning, and a sharp clarity surrounds everything. The man feels that nothing is concealed.

‘And thus he has encountered his second enemy : Clarity! That clarity of mind, which is so hard to obtain, dispels fear, but also blinds.

‘It forces the man never to doubt himself. It gives him the assurance he can do anything he pleases, for he sees clearly into everything. And he is courageous because he is clear, and he stops at nothing because he is clear. But all that is a mistake; it is like something incomplete. If the man yields o this make-believe power, he has succumbed to his second enemy and will fumble with learning. He will rush when he should be patient, or he will be patient when he should rush. And he will fumble with learning until he winds up incapable of learning anything more.’

‘What becomes of a man who is defeated in that way, don Juan? Does he die as a result?’

‘No, he doesn’t die. His second enemy has just stopped him cold from trying to become a man of knowledge; instead, the man may turn into a buoyant warrior, or a clown. Yet the clarity for which he has paid so dearly will never change to darkness and fear again. He will be clear as long as he lives, but he will no longer learn, or yearn for, anything.’

‘But what does he have to do to avoid being defeated?’

‘He must do what he did with fear : he must defy his clarity and use it only to see, and wait patiently and measure carefully before taking new steps; he must think, above all, that his clarity is almost a mistake. And a moment will come when he will understand that his clarity was only a point before his eyes, And thus he will have overcome his second enemy, and will arrive at a position where nothing can harm him any more. This will not be a mistake. It will not be only a point before his eyes. It will be true power.

‘He will know at this point that the power he has been pursuing for so long is finally his. He can do with it whatever he pleases. His ally is at his command. His wish is the rule. He sees all that is around him. But he has also come across his thirst enemy : Power!

‘Power is the strongest of all enemies, And naturally the easiest thing to do is to give in; after all, the man is truly invincible. He commands; he begins by taking calculated risks, and ends in making rules, because he is a master.

‘A man at this stage hardly notices his third enemy closing in on him. And suddenly, without knowing, he will certainly have lost the battle. His enemy will have turned him into a cruel, capricious man.’

‘Will he lose his power?’

‘No, he will never lose his clarity or his power.’

‘What then will distinguish him from a man of knowledge?’

‘A man who is defeated by power dies without really knowing how to handle it. Power is only a burden upon his fate. Such a man has no command over himself, and cannot tell when or how to use his power.’

‘Is the defeat by any of these enemies a final defeat?’

‘Of course it is final. Once one of these enemies overpowers a man there is nothing he can do.’

‘Is it possible, for instance, that the man who is defeated by power may see his error and mend his ways?’

‘No. Once a man gives in he is through.’

‘But what if he is temporarily blinded by power, and then refuses it?’

‘That means the battle is still on. That means he is still trying to become a man of knowledge. A man is defeated only when he no longer tries, and abandons himself.’

‘But then, don Juan, it is possible that a man may abandon himself to fear for years, but finally conquer it.’

‘No, that is not true. If he gives in to fear he will never conquer it, he will shy away from learning and never try again. But if he tries to learn for years in the midst of his fear, he will eventually conquer it because he will never have really abandoned himself to it.’

‘How can he defeat his third enemy, don Juan?’

‘He has to defy it, deliberately. He has to come to realize the power he has seemingly conquered is in reality never his. He must keep himself in line at all times, handling carefully and faithfully all that he has learned. If he can see that clarity and power, without his control over himself, are worse than mistakes, he will reach a point where everything is held in check. He will know then when and how to use his power. And thus he will have defeated his third enemy.

‘The man will be, by then, at the end of his journey of learning, and almost without warning he will come upon the last of his enemies : Old age! This enemy is the cruelest of all, the one he won’t be able to defeat completely, but only fight away.

‘This is the time when a man has no more fears, no more impatient clarity of mind – a time when all his power is in check, but also the time when he has an unyielding desire to rest. If he gives in totally to his desire to lie down and forget, if he soothes himself in tiredness, he will have lost his last round, and his enemy will cut him down into a feeble old creature. His desire to retreat will overrule all his clarity, his power, and his knowledge.

‘But if the man sloughs off his tiredness, and lives his fate through, he can then be called a man of knowledge, if only for a brief moment when he succeeds in fighting off his last, invincible enemy. That moment of clarity, power, and knowledge is enough.”

Carlos Castaneda. ‘The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge’3

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John Davis
Australia 1936–99
You Yangs
1980
twigs, cotton thread, papier mâché, string, wood
196.0 x 90.0 x 30.0 cm
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane
Purchased, 1980. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation with funds from Dr W. R. Johnston
© Penelope Davis & Martin Davis. Administered by VISCOPY, Australia

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John Davis
Australia 1936–99
Evolution of a fish: Traveller
1990
twigs, cotton thread, calico, bituminous paint
110.0 x 130.0 x 18.0 cm
Private collection, Melbourne
© Penelope Davis & Martin Davis. Administered by VISCOPY, Australia

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John Davis
Australia 1936–99
Nomad (detail)
1998
twigs, cotton thread, calico, bituminous paint
(1-150) 163.0 x 1400.0 x 18.0 (variable) (installation)
Private collection, Melbourne
© Penelope Davis & Martin Davis. Administered by VISCOPY, Australia

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“The National Gallery of Victoria has opened John Davis: Presence, celebrating the work of influential Australian artist, John Davis (1936-1999). The exhibition draws together over 40 works by the artist including sculpture, photography and installations.

David Hurlston, Curator, Australian Art, NGV, said this important survey charts Davis’s development as an artist, from his early works, produced during the 1960s, through to his critically acclaimed sculptures and installation works leading into the nineties.

“At the core of his practice, particularly evident in his late works, was an awareness of ecology and a sensitivity to the elemental forces of nature and the effect of human actions. Now, at a time when issues relating to the environment seem more pertinent than ever, Davis’s sculptures have even greater resonance.

“John Davis was a pioneering Australian artist who during his life achieved a critically acclaimed international reputation as a sculptor and installation artist. This important exhibition has a particular focus on the artist’s interest in found and fragile organic materials, and the powerful evocation of the landscape,” said Mr Hurlston.

A highlight of the exhibition is a series of works featuring fish. From the mid 1980s, Davis used fish in his work as a symbol for human movement and relationships with each other and the environment. Davis commonly referred to his fish as ‘nomads’ or ‘travellers’ and once described his works as ‘a metaphor for people and the way we move around the world; a statement for diversity’.

Frances Lindsay, Deputy Director, NGV said: “Davis’s mature works reflected his sensitivity to the landscapes that surrounded him. Visitors will be excited by the vision of this extraordinary artist as they explore his development from the early sixties through to his death in 1999. This exhibition is a special tribute to one of Australia’s great conceptual and environmentally aware artists.”

Born in Ballarat, Victoria, in 1936, John Davis studied at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. In 1972 Davis travelled to Europe and America before returning to Australia the following year to take up a position at Prahran College of Advanced Education. In subsequent years Davis was a senior faculty member at the Victorian College of the Arts and continued to travel widely and exhibit regularly in America, Japan and Australia.

John Davis was awarded a number of prizes, among them the 1970 Comalco Invitation Award for Sculpture and the Blake Prize for Religious Art in 1993. He participated in the inaugural Mildura Sculpture Triennial, and he represented Australia at the Venice Biennale in 1978.  Davis was also the first artist whose work was profiled in the NGV Survey series in 1978.”

Text from the National Gallery of Victoria website

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John Davis
c.1992
Photo: Penelope Davis

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John Davis
Australia 1936–99
Kōan (detail)
1999
twigs, cotton thread, calico, bituminous paint
(a-l) 20.0 x 430.0 x 1086.0 cm (variable) (installation)
Private collection, Melbourne
© Penelope Davis & Martin Davis. Administered by VISCOPY, Australia

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John Davis
Australia 1936–99
River
1998
twigs, cotton thread, calico, bituminous paint
(a-l) 300.0 x 1070.0 x 90.0 cm (variable) (installation)
Private collection, Melbourne
© Penelope Davis & Martin Davis. Administered by VISCOPY, Australia

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1. Anon. “Bitumen,” on Wikipedia [Online] Cited 02/10/2010. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bitumen

2. Anon. “Kōan,” on Wikipedia [Online] Cited 02/10/2010. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kōan

3. Castaneda, Carlos. The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. London: Arkana Books, 1968, pp.84-87.

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The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia
Federation Square

Corner of Russell and 
Flinders Streets, Melbourne

Opening hours:
10am – 5pm
Closed Mondays

National Gallery of Victoria website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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