March 14, 2019

THE THEORY OF COLOR

Final days of Ian Davenport’s multi-hued show at Dallas Contemporary

In British artist Ian Davenport’s adept hands, paint does casual loop-de-loops, trails in tidy Technicolor rows and bubbles from his epic canvases in vibrant pools.

Throughout his current exhibition “Horizons,” which closes at the Dallas Contemporary March 17, his unconventional approach to painting almost consumes the viewer, taking them into a colorful new dimension. It’s no wonder that most visitors to the show throughout its run felt compelled to pose in front of, alongside or standing above his delightful drips.

Having previously installed the centerpiece of the Contemporary show—his 46-by-13-foot “Giardini Colourfall”—at the 2017 Venice Biennale, Davenport learned firsthand how his pieces impact even the most casual observer.

“One of the things that was very nice about the Venice painting is the way an audience (who was) not an art audience embraced it,” he recalls. “It wasn’t in a normal gallery environment— people were jumping in front of it and having their photo taken in front of it, which was lovely.”

For an abstract artist, Davenport’s oeuvre may seem pretty populist, but throughout his career he’s always been a step ahead of the critics. One of the notorious “Young British Artists,” Davenport studied alongside Damien Hirst, Gary Hume and Sarah Lucas at Goldsmiths in the late ‘80s. Post-graduation, he had amazing success right out of the gate, garnering the honor of being the youngest artist nominated for the Turner Prize in 1991, and joining the storied collection at the Tate Britain. But, as he cycled through his uber-minimalist black monochrome paintings into more experimental color combinations, Davenport found himself occasionally flummoxing his audience—and his gallerist of 30 years, Waddington Custot.

“I think the challenge for an artist if you have a lot of early successes is to maintain that and then to try different things out,” he says. “After the black monochrome paintings, I did a series of paintings which threw everybody. I had to become aware of who is looking at the paintings, and how they’re being received in the world—that’s quite an important thing to do.”

During this process, he began to develop his signature floor drips, a way for him to bring a sculptural element into his practice. For Davenport, “having the confidence to let the paint pool and do what it wants” upon a thin metal sheet placed under his canvases elevated his practice with added shape and form.

“It’s a very simple process, but it has a lot of complex readings. It also allows me to play around with color in very, very complicated sequences and that’s just such fun,” Davenport says.

To further push himself, he got out of his color comfort zone, exploring palettes cribbed everywhere from the opening sequence of The Simpsonsto masterpieces by Monet and Van Gogh. The latter’s “The Harvest” hung in the artist’s childhood bedroom, and informed his own “Harvest” with its bands of ochres, turquoises and blues.

“I got used to putting certain sort of combinations together, and I felt it was becoming a bit predictable. I needed to sort of subvert that in some way. and I think that’s what Van Gogh was so fabulous at doing, he really understood how color could be orchestrated and create amazing effects.”

For the Contemporary show, Davenport created seven new pieces just for the space, including one painting inspired by a field of Texas bluebonnets. For each, Davenport typically does a series of three to four smaller color stories, following his intuition in the combinations of hues. After laying it out on a computer screen, he winnows down to the most successful series that serve as a sort of “trigger” to further explore.

“It might something I’ve seen, or has some sort of emotional resonance—the tones go on a bit of a journey (and) become their own thing.”

Davenport compares his use of color to food (“it’s kind of delicious, and its warm”) and his painterly technique to making music. It’s no wonder even the most casual fan of abstract art can get lost in each all-encompassing work, from little kids on school tours to the most analytical of art critics.

“I think the paintings have a sort of musicality to them,” says the artist, who also plays drums and guitar in his spare time. “It’s a very useful analogy to use with abstract painting. They’re kind of timed, and I have to keep that pulse going when I’m working. There’s a sense you can pass through them—they feel like big, resonant chords.” —Kendall Morgan 

The Details: Dallas Contemporary, 161 Glass Street.