Solving the mystery of the missing subject
New York — Try as I will, I can't help feeling that most of the newer realists are dull and of little merit. Their cold-blooded attention to mere physical appearance at the expense of character and form leaves me unable to take their work very seriously.
It wouldn't be so bad if their paintings weren't so large. Banality is tolerable if measured in inches but is hard to take in canvases measuring 8 to 10 feet in either direction.
What makes it even worse is that the genre has become fashionable, so fashionable in fact that we are in grave danger of being inundated by hundreds of these huge paintings of trivial subjects executed in the most drab fashion imaginable.
There is hope, however, in the fact that a few artists of real talent and imagination have taken this intensely realistic approach to art and turned it into an expressive vehicle for their own highly individualistic points of view.
One of the most promising of these artists is Rebecca Davenport, and a selection of her large paintings of interiors is being shown at Aberbach Fine Art here.
Although at first glance these works appear to embody the very qualities I objected to just now, they are actually far from dull and banal. As a matter of fact, they are among the best realistic paintings I have seen in quite some time.
What makes them so is a combination of acute observation, a strong talent for drawing and a fair one for color, and -- most important -- a clear, personal, and determined point of view.
It is this point of view which sets her apart, for it gives her work a focus and a cohesiveness otherwise difficult to achieve in canvases as large and as crowded with detail as hers.
To a very large extent, the paintings of Rebecca Davenport are portraits of people who are not present, but who have left behind innumerable clues to their character, activities, dreams, frustrations. These clues can take the form of a rumpled and recently departed bed, remnants of snacks and scattered newspapers in front of a TV set, or a bedroom strewn with papers, magazines, and books.
In "Aunt Emily," for instance, we are confronted by a darkened room crowded with the memorabilia of that lady's childhood. These include a baby buggy, toys , dolls, a toy sofa, a child's rocking chair, a dollhouse, and the corner of a child's playhouse. They are all, in one sense, put into this room for storage. But in another sense, they are kept "alive" and very much in use.
This ambiguity as to time (if these play-things were put there for storage, why isn't there a speck of dust to be seen anywhere?) creates an effect haunting and a bit surreal.
One senses that Aunt Emily is an elderly, fussy, and slightly anxious lady, that she has never married, and that she lives alone.
A certain Mr. Harris is the subject of two paintings in the show. In "Mr. Harris," we are shown a corner of a room recently occupied by this gentleman while he was eating a snack and watching TV. Papers, glasses, and empty containers litter the room. In a dark corner sits a bedraggled old stuffed chair which is also the central character in the other work, "Mr. Harris's Chair."
I don't know Mr. Harris, have never met him, but I suspect he is a warm, likable, but somewhat messy and disorderly individual.
"Sands Motel" is another matter entirely. Everything about this painting, from the rumpled pillows on the bed to the casualness with which the covers have been thrown aside, indicates a hasty departure, probably very early in the morning.
These works, then, are to be carefully "read" for clues to character and incident. Yet important as that is, it is only half the story.
These paintings are also remarkable studies of atmosphere and light. In fact , it is Davenport's sensitive handling of direct and diffused light which holds her complex compositions together, and which personalizes each painting with its distinctive character and flavor.
When you really come down to it, it is the light entering from the three windows in "Aunt Emily" which is the picture's reals storyteller. Without it we would have little more than a carefully delineated grouping of old toys and other playthings.
And the same applies to every other painting in the show. It is light moving in, illuminating, bringing into sharp focus or half hiding, setting up a harsh glare or a warm glow, which is the main actor in the drama of Davenport's art. And it is her handling of light that sets her head and shoulders above most of the crowd of sharp-focus representational painters.
No that she has fully mastered it yet. There are times -- as in "Mr. Harris's Chair" -- when it turns cold and exists merely as gradations aof white against darker tones. It also occasionally clashes with clusters of details, forcing us to divide our attention between fact and illusion -- and creating a slight sense of clutter as a result.
But these are minor matters in the overall context of her art. What does stand out is her truly remarkable ability to give form and substance to a very fugitive and subtle world of implication, of absences and leave-taking -- a world of nostalgia and gentle aches for what might have been.
Unfortunately, these qualities in art are not fashionable today. Yet Rebecca Davenport will, I suspect, hold her own very well by the sheer quality of her work, and by the persistence of her vision.
For an artist still comparatively young, she has already accomplished a great deal.
This exhibition at Aberbach Fine Art will remain on view through Nov. 8.