Conversation: Harry Davies on the union of material and meaning

Harry Davies painting

Contributed by Kate Liebman / Harry Davies and I met in a painting critique session a couple of years ago when BHQFU was offering classes in the East Village. I visited his studio at Union Theological Seminary at Columbia recently, and we discussed what’s on his mind and in his paintings.

[Image at top: Harry Davies at Union Theological Seminary.]

2cop - 2. HD Painting
Harry Davies

Harry uses collage elements and paint interchangeably. For him, collage and paint are “the same thing.” His palette is covered with collage items, magazine clippings, stuff I find on the street, packaging items, things like that. And paint next to it, and oftentimes ruining the collage bits because there’s paint on them.

But this interchangeability gets complicated because he collages in recognizable objects – shoes, buttholes, magazine pictures of peaches, candy, brand logos. We discussed the role of these legible images in his pictures: the collage materials are both marks and things, flitting between these two states of pure form and recognizability.

Harry Davies
Harry Davies

This discussion of appropriation led us to wonder about the difference between the signifier and the symbol, an idea Harry explained succinctly:

H: I think that the strict Saussure, godfather of semiotics / modern linguistics, definition is that the signifier is completely arbitrary from its signified. The word dog doesn’t remotely resemble the four-legged furry animal, but it signifies it. And there’s a gap between the two. A symbol would be more like a falling rock sign, where there’s rocks tumbling down. So it’s not totally arbitrary. A symbol is a communicative form that somewhat resembles what it signifies.

What strikes me about Harry’s paintings is that he can generate such careful compositions with so little. Harry thinks about his compositions quite a bit, and he thinks about them in relation to the great masters of Western painting. On the voidic, unpainted space he has left in the middle of many of his paintings, he references Poussin:

Poussin does that a lot. There are three paintings at the Met that are next to each other. The Rape of the Sabine Women is the central one. The wooded scene is on the right. They’re really nice paintings. If you look at them all side by side — it’s cool that they’re nicely hung — they all have this floating ellipse, negative space in the middle of them. It’s hard to see at first, but once you see it, it’s the first thing.

KL: What’s it made of? Light, like in Fragonard’s paintings?

HD: No, it’s usually negative space. In The Rape of the Sabine Women, there’s a bunch of figures in the foreground. And their bodies make the shape. They all swirl around it. It’s totally obvious that that was really important to him in coming up with the composition. And the wooded scene has it too. It’s made out of trees. And there’s depth behind it. Or deeper space. That’s really cool to me. It’s a device that really made it about…implied depth. [I want] to hold in tension depth-space and picture-plane space.

Harry Davies painting
Harry Davies

In other words, to hold in tension the depth of space implied in the picture plane (the space behind the surface), and the lateral play of marks on the surface. Harry paints until these “two forces cancel each other out,” creating intense optical tension, yet also a peculiar balance.

Harry Davies painting
Harry Davies

Harry has recently started to experiment with the grid, which functions similarly to the voidic space of his previous paintings: There’s a little bit of slippage between it being a totally flat painting and a depth painting.” Like this elliptical space of Poussin’s, the grid has a rich history in art, especially in Renaissance paintings, as the underlying compositional structure.

Harry explains that the grid is

not left as a record. But it’s there. Piero. All those paintings. If you really analyze them you can tell that they must have been gridded. And there are the unfinished ones where you can see the grid too. Leonardo, famously. I leave it out in front because I don’t make really polished things that conceal the decisions. I don’t like to conceal my decisions.

Harry really doesn’t cover anything up in his paintings, ever. Everything is exposed, nothing concealed. Which makes it so that each decision is incredibly important.

HD: There’s so little in them. I like to make it out of as few marks as possible, always. That’s something I always keep in the back of my mind.

KL: Why?

HD: I like paintings that are concise. And I paint my best when I’m telling myself that. It’s like walking on a tightrope.

KL: It’s a question of the stakes of each decision.

HD: And I like to keep the stakes really high. A lot of painters aren’t like that. They need to keep the stakes low, and that’s when they’re the most…

KL: …free.

HD: Yeah, free. They’re the most lively. And I’m the opposite of that I’ve found. It’s best when it’s reckless and it’s reckless when the stakes are high. That’s why there’s as little as there is.

Harry Davies painting
Harry Davies

I moved the conversation back to Renaissance paintings. It became clear to me that, in a certain way, for Harry, everything comes back to the Renaissance:

HD: Something that’s really interesting in Renaissance painting, which is really different from almost everyone now, the pissing contest — or, the contest, between painters — to distinguish themselves at that time, there was predetermined subject matter, always. You were only going to set yourself apart by pressing yourself formally. That’s why if you look at Titian next to Tintoretto, they were painting the same city at the same time, very often the same subject matter, or they’d both be painting assumptions, that kind of thing. I will still always pick Titian over Tintoretto. Not because of what the paintings are about, but because there’s this crazy thing that Titian does: the paintings rhyme. All these forms that talk to the other forms. All this repetition, weird overlapping. No one else does that, that’s what’s going to take precedence for me, looking at those paintings.

I imagined Harry walking through galleries or museums looking at pictures with X-ray vision, not seeing the picture as an image but as a compilation of its visual rhymes, its gaps, its overlapping planes.

During his senior year at RISD, Harry studied abroad in Rome. Something began to shift for him. This is the (abbreviated) story of how he ended up at Union Theological Seminary:

HD: I started getting really interested in religion again from painting, from really loving Renaissance painting. What is being depicted, I had no idea. This is this scene, this is that story.

KL: So you were attracted to the form of the painting, and through that attraction wanted to learn more about the narrative. The opposite of how Renaissance people looked!

HD: Hah, so yeah, I started reading more. Looked at the Bible seriously. I loved going to churches so much. I started going to services, too, just to observe. Something I’ve started doing again actually.

Also during his senior year at RISD, Harry visited the Whitney Biennial and found himself in a room of Forrest Bess paintings curated by Robert Gober:

HD: There was this one little room that was like this sanctuary with these unbelievably sensitive, beautiful little abstractions. A lot of them are kind of symmetrical; they feel like they were of something, even though they were abstract. Like he had seen something and was trying to render it. The painting was a communicative thing of something he had seen, rather than him painting purely formally.

I started reading about him. His story is amazing also. He meditated a lot, and basically painted his visions. He was a total recluse. Lived on an island in the Bayeux in Texas. Was a fisherman, lived off the land. Died of alcoholism or something. He was really interested in C. G. Jung. And that’s something Jung prescribed a lot: he wanted people to draw their dreams a lot. I think people are scared of him. People either write him off as a lunatic, and invalidate his teachings.

KL: One of the things I think people are scared by, is that the individual becomes a lot less powerful in his understanding of the world. The collective becomes more important which means that we, as our ego-centered selves, lose a lot of that power.

Harry Davies painting
Harry Davies

So, we started talking about Jung a bit more:

HD: I wish there was more really serious work done in the Jungian vein, but done critically. The anthropological side of Jung is what’s interesting to me. In the collective unconscious there are all these archetypal figures that people inhabit, or learn from, or are visited by, in their dreams. But a problem with Jung is that it’s western centric. These archetypes are all from German folklore or Greco-Roman myth, or from the Bible. But Jung makes the argument that these figures are innate to human consciousness and they manifested themselves in these books. It’s hard to make this argument because they might visit you because you’re familiar with them. The figure of the witch has come up in cultures that likely knew nothing of each other, but has manifested itself in really similar ways. The witch is just one example.

KL: Sidebar: it’s funny to think of you collecting all of this detritus and then putting it in your paintings, as an act of gathering little consciousness points and relating that action to collectivity.

HD: Yeah, I like to think of culture as a wilderness. I had never made that connection before, but, yeah, it’s obviously there.

Harry’s interest in Jung, in painting, in Christianity led him to Union Theological Seminary, where he has encountered the Winnicot’s work on “transitional objects” which is really just

the Winnicottian nomenclature for teddy bear or a security blanket. The idea is that the child finds this object and endows it with human characteristics. The object becomes a subject in the child’s mind.

This conversation about the potential power of inanimate objects led us to discuss the use of ritual objects in liturgical practices, especially the Eucharist.

KL: The wafer into the body. The wine into the blood.

HD: Yeah, exactly. How an object can be endowed with meaning that is high stakes.

KL: I’m now thinking about the Eucharist as a symbol not a signifier. How the wine formally is related to the blood, how the wafer formally is related to the body.

HD: I’m not sure I see what you’re saying.

KL: Like red wine is more similar to blood than white wine or orange juice. So there’s this formal connection, and in that way it’s a symbol not a signifier.

HD: Yeah it is, totally. But it’s also neither, if you’re devout.

KL: An example from Judaism would be the Torah, which is really just a book. But you can’t touch it. It’s very important the way in which the object is made — how it’s written out, which is not just an indicator of its importance. But it also seems to possess some kind of transcendence.

HD: And that it’s words too. I think that Torah functions like a great narrative painting: the objecthood of it is really important and held in tension with the content of the word. It can be read, but it’s also meant to be looked at.

KL: It’s interesting to think of the skepticism or ambivalence that the three religions of the book have toward images. If you look at the Greek Orthodox Church, for example, the image or the icon has symbolic power but it also somehow holds some kind of divinity.

HD: The eastern icon functions similarly to the Eucharistic wafer in that it’s real presence. A Christ Redeemer icon carries Christ in it, in the same way that the bread does also during in the Eucharistic service in a Catholic or Episcopalian church. That something that seemed so legible, like meant to be read, could function not as a symbol but as the thing itself. This complete union of material and meaning.

Harry Davies painting
Harry Davies

This union of material and meaning is central to Harry’s whole painting project.

HD: Since I first became familiar with the Eucharist, I thought that that’s what great painting is. That material and meaning are completely congealed. They’re the exact same thing.

KL: And that’s an act of transformation. Painting catches it in the transformation, and that’s maybe what you’re talking about with tension.

HD: Yeah, I want to set up tension so that the two things can congeal. That’s what my whole painting project is. I don’t think that’s going to change. Two competing forces held in tension with one another, and the objective of the painting is to have it congeal.


About the author: Kate Liebman is an artist who lives and works in New York. She graduated from Yale with a degree in the Humanities in 2013. She contributes regularly to The Brooklyn Rail.


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