The art world is full of nerds who’ve reinvented themselves, but few are so bold as to turn their trauma into treasure. Yet scalding shame, awkward good intentions, raw vulnerability and almost constant anxiety are the subjects of Gerald Davisâ€š pale, raw, cartoon-quality large-scale drawings and paintings. Los Angeles-based Davis’s strength is how well he matches his formal choices with his narrative ambitions. The slippery softness of the limited palette in his paintings perfectly illustrates the haziness of memory. His mostly monochromatic drawings and paintings resonate with icky misery and achy longing whether he is employing his cartoon creations for wish-fulfillment, confession, disclosure or fantasy. Muted tones of magenta, tomato and lemon, popular in the 80s, give the necessary local color while pushing the imagery back into the past.
While his pre-teen misery might have been extreme, Davis’s work resonates as an often embellished, yet still painfully recognizable, reflection of everyone’s awkward years. A painting like For Hillary, one part of a pale pink oil diptych from 2006, is an uncomfortably unconventional love-note to Davis’s 7th grade crush. The image features him in the process of creatively crafting a homemade mirkin out of rubber cement and his own hair in an attempt to hide his bald public area, which he hoped would be seen by ‘Hillary’, a girl rumored to give hand-jobs in the playground. Thankfully, Hillary never offered her services to Davis because his invention had melted with his sweat by the time he got to his date. As Jarvis Cocker wrote, ‘These glory days can take their toll.’
Davis, who was born and raised in Pittsburgh, received a BFA from the Pennsylvania State University in 1997 and an MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1999. He began exhibiting with the Black Dragon Society, an artist-run space, in Los Angeles’s super hip Chinatown area. John Connelly spotted Davis’s paintings in the Black Dragon booth at an art fair and invited the thirty-two-year-old artist to have his first solo show at the start of this fall season, along side a simultaneous painting show at Jeanine Greenberg’s uptown home/ exhibition space. This October, he will have a selection of paintings included in ‘USA Today‘ at the Royal Academy in London.
Until 14 October
Gerald Davis: 1986
Until 5 October
6 October – 4 November
ANA FINEL HONIGMAN: Did you ever have any trepidation about disclosing your personal experiences in public?
GERALD DAVIS: It’s really for me. I just want to make images and share something. For me, my personal past is just where my most interesting stories are. Personal memories are not always my source point. Sometimes I’ll make something from a fantasy I had about some I saw someone. It’ll always either be something I know that happened or something I know I definitely feel a certain away about.
AFH: What Donald Rumsfeld would call the ‘known knowns’, right?
GD: Sure. It would be something I have to know my way around in order for me to know how to portray it or represent it.
AFH: What about what Rumsfeld calls the ‘known unknowns’ or ‘unknown unknowns’? Would fantasy paintings fall into that category?
GD: Probably, my paintings are either about what I know to be true, what I want to be true or what I think might be true. I have hypothesis paintings which are about things I think might be true but can’t know. You know how if you see something happen a lot, like people drop something a certain way, then you might speculate it happened for a reason. So I have a few drawings like that. The John Connelly show is mostly drawings of things I know happened.
AFH: Do you think people have assumptions about you when they meet you, based on the personal information they gather from the stories you tell in your paintings?
GD: Not really but I saw this girl wearing a Star Wars t-shirt the other day and when I told her I liked it, she told me that she knew my work and thought I might.
AFH: You do a lot of work referring popular culture. Would you say you are as comfortable representing TV or movies as your own memories?
GD: Pop culture makes its way into my imagery because it was part of the scene where my memories took place. That’s the world we live in. When people see my work in Europe, they often comment that it’s ‘so American’. They’ll ask me whether I think my work is ‘American’ because I include popular logos on t-shirts and reference television, but I only do that because those are my realities, that is what was really there.
AFH: You mean to say that Europeans think your work is some kind of post-modern commentary on TV and not really autobiographical or personal?
GD: I think they just see it and see the aspects that remind them of pop-culture America, with its deer hunting and Star Wars.
AFH: Why 1986?
GD: I wanted to make something really special for New York, because so many people would see it here, and I was thinking of everything that happened to me that year and I wanted to get the whole spectrum of experience from that year into one show. I wanted to cull the most memorable events in to one
AFH: Much of your work projects a sense of fear. What were you most frightened of as a child?
GD: I spent most of the 80s pretty terrified about nuclear war. I saw a lot of movies about it on HBO.
AFH: Including Testament which was the inspiration for one of your drawings at John Connelly, right?
GD: Yes, Testament terrified me. It was about a family living in the suburbs and then one night, there is a flash outside the window. Everyone doesn’t die at once but there is a slow winding down and people start getting sick and having to be buried in the frontyard. Then there is this little kid who looses control of his bowels and while his mother is trying to wash him in the sink, he floods the sink with diarrhea. It was so disturbing. HBO is a Pandora’s box. I shouldn’t have been watching that movie at that time. It probably triggered a lot of my nuclear war fears.
AFH: In examining your childhood fear of nuclear war, are you making corollaries between the Cold War fears and our present fear of Islamic terrorists?
GD: I am sure there are connections but I wasn’t explicitly making any. I was just trying to tell my story. I think that if you tell a story, any story, really accurately then its meaning will just resonate in contemporary life, no matter what its meaning.
AFH: Do you think critics are usually off-base or pretty accurate in their reading of your work?
GD: Well, I haven’t gotten a lot of press but I was in a group show at John Connelly and there was one review where a critic liked my piece and another, in the New Yorker, where the critic thought it ruined the show, so I guess its varied. Then again there was a beer bong enema in that painting, so I
guess that could offend some people.
AFH: A beer bong enema happened to you?
GD: No, that didn’t happen. That was a total fabrication. I knew this guy in high school and I wanted to project into the future and imagine what he might be doing.
AFH: This was a friend of yours?
GD: No, he was a jock who I figured would have joined a fraternity in college, and hopefully gone through some pretty bad hazing rituals.
AFH: So art provides you with the opportunity for wish-fulfillment?
GD: Not only. I mean I have one drawing up right now called Fag Boy, which was of me with the words ‘Fag Boy’ written on my chest, because I had the nickname Fag Boy in 1986.
AFH: Were you like a superhero? Like Robin?
GD: No, I wish it was that. I was really into animation when I was around 12. I wanted to be an animator, like a Disney animator. I spent all my time alone in my room drawing and the nickname was given to me by my brother and his friends. It wasn’t particularly hurtful, I guess. I mean, when you’re 12, the word for outsider is fag. Fag means otherâ€š and I was alone a lot, doing my own thing, and that was troubling to other people.
AFH: Have you found a community of artists you work best with?
GD: I lot of LA art is really smart, really conceptual and I think there is something I’m not getting but the Black Dragon world is something I can feed off of and identify with. I hope to be working with them for a long time.
AFH: Do you think the art press and art market is too youth focused?
GD: Totally, but I don’t think you have to be young to be good. There is something exciting about seeing a young dude’s first show. It’s like you look at a young little kitten and wonder what it’ll grow up to be.
AFH: Probably a cat. As an artist, are you worried that the longevity of an artist’s career is uncertain in an era where youth is so highly privileged?
GD: If you’re really into it, then you’re only secondarily concerned about those questions because your primarily allegiance is to getting the stuff done for yourself. If the other stuff happens, then it’s great but it can only happen if you’re not too interested in whether people are interested. If I can’t make money, then I’ll have to substitute teach to pay to do art. I did that for a year. There were some great stories there.
AFH: Do you know many of your collectors and does knowing a collector’s taste ever influence how you make or conceptualize your work?
GD: Dean Valentine bought a few of my pieces a little while ago. I didn’t know who he was but the guys at Black Dragon told me and for a while I was thinking about it in the studio. It made me nervous, so I decided to stop thinking of it and just make the work for myself.
AFH: Currently quite a lot of artists are making work about adolescence and/ or replicating an adolescent aesthetic. Why do you think that is happening now?
GD: Guy stuff is juicy material. It’s a generational thing. Roger Ebert, the film critic, said that when he was young, kids were always going to the movies to see adults have sex but now everyone is going to the movies to see teenagers have sex. Maybe its just a zeitgeist thing, and people are thinking more about childhood and weird stuff that hasn’t been discussed before. I know for me that there is a lot of weird sexual, childhood stuff I haven’t heard discussed before and looking at it makes it legitimate somehow. I like to be revealing something or think I am revealing something new.
ANA FINEL HONIGMAN is a critic and PhD candidate in art history at Oxford University.