A Scottish Painter's Twisting Journey

Two major shows of Alan Davie's work reveal his shifting sensibilities during his career

ONE of the intriguing paradoxes of modern art is that it has so often been an intuitive leap into primitivism. You only have to think of such luminaries as Miro, Picasso, or Klee; their primary aim was scarcely modernity.

The Scottish-born painter Alan Davie - the subject of two current major shows in Scotland and a new monograph - is also obviously an artist who doesn't think of himself as "modern." He prefers the notion of art as primeval magic.

Now in his 70s (looking increasingly guru-like), Mr. Davie's career has been varied: He is a painter first and foremost, and yet he is a writer and poet, too. He writes that art is a "by-product of living and working." He is also a jazz musician. And he has found extraordinary inspiration in the birdlike sensation of flying gliders. He finds something similar in the delight of underwater swimming. Early in his career he made jewelry. He is prodigious and energetic.

The two exhibitions - one at the McLellan Galleries in Glasgow, the other at the Talbot Rice Gallery at the University of Edinburgh - pay generous tribute to this prolific and original son of Scotland. The only irony is that Davie as a young man abandoned his native land because he found it "parochial and uninspiring."

The public relations people in Glasgow, however, now trumpet Davie as "Scotland's greatest living painter," and Davie himself is much in evidence, patiently explaining aspects of a painting to a TV camera, gesturing obligingly for journalists, and chatting with curators. He will also perform in the last of a series of live concerts for a program of taped music in the galleries. This dialogue between the paintings and the music is stimulating and sometimes even revelatory.

Considerable care has been taken in the Glasgow show to indicate how many-sided Davie is. Douglas Hall writes in the handsome new book about Davie's work that the thesis "is that Davie's life and work is a seamless web...."

Nevertheless, the chronology of both exhibitions suggests otherwise: that, in fact, Davie changed vastly in mid-career. For all his emergence at the time of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning and the COBRA artists, and in spite of a healthy eclecticism in his earliest work, Davie was entirely his own man, a definite individualist, however much he denied it. He maintained that art was the opposite of self-expression.

Mr. Hall, retired director of the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, insists that the sources of Davie's inspiration should not be confused with the end product of the art itself.

These sources include Zen Buddhism, paleolithic art, Aboriginal art, and the Jain religion of India. Not to mention a grab bag of other promptings and experiences both earthy and mystical, benign and dubiously esoteric, childish and commonplace.

Hall finally asserts, perhaps more hopefully than observantly, that "we may be sure that [Davie] will not lose himself in occult by-ways...." Yet that appears to be just what has happened.

Davie's palpable change as a painter, from the 1950s and '60s to today, is much more than a change of style and procedure. He has moved from a frenetic, ebullient improvisation to a patient, dry development of paintings from preliminary drawings. His later work also displays a more overt borrowing from his sources, which he has often studied at length. It amounts to a change of philosophy, a reversal of attitude towards art and himself. Perhaps he feels it is truer. It is also much less inspiring.

The spontaneous energy of the earlier paintings, whatever Davie said to the contrary, did contain a high degree of "self-expression," or at least vivid evidence of the fury or rapture that went into their making.

SYMBOLS or signs were everywhere in these paintings, but they naturally subserve his own vision. They become part of his visual language. They are presented with a conscious, although dramatically bold, whimsicality. These jubilant paintings - particularly those of the '60s when he seems to have had boundless confidence and a glorious relish of color and paint - are like the works of an adventurous, excited child. They sometimes grow out of struggle, but in any case they are all of a piece, richly dispa rate but finally one.

This equivalence is not achieved by plan, or by theorizing, but by the open mind of an artist magnificently in tune with himself and his imagination.

The Glasgow retrospective chronicles the move from such high powers to today's rather dry, literal, stagey dream pictures. In these, painting has given way to persnickety drawing, fluidity to a strange stiffness. It's as if he is now trying to catch the intangibility of experience that was always on the verge of his vision by drawing charts and maps of it. Symbols and signs now seem to have been copied out of some manual of past myths: illustrations, eccentrically used, but not absorbed.

Hall, discussing the late works, remarks that "Davie is not to be construed like a textbook." But why does he feel the need to say this? Could it be because iconography is so predominant a feature of Davie's most recent work that Hall suspects it cannot be fully appreciated without interpreting its symbolic meanings?

Hints of the old (or rather, young) Davie pop out at you now and then in these later works. But on the whole this large exposure of Davie's output suggests his intellectual side has now taken over too much from his intuitive: His earlier work criticizes his later by a striking, and not particularly gentle, confrontation. Exhibition information

* 'Solo: The Alan Davie Retrospective' continues at the McLellan Galleries, Glasgow, until March 22. Then it can be seen in Bristol, England, at the Royal West of England Academy through Oct. 3.

* 'Alan Davie: Works on Paper' is at the Talbot Rice Gallery, University of Edinburgh, until Feb. 29. The exhibit then moves to Artspace in Aberdeen, Scotland, through April 8, and on to Oriel Mostyn in Llandudno, Wales, from May 29 to July 11. Since the show is organized by the British Council, it will have an extended tour overseas at the end of 1992 to Latin America and later Japan.

* The book, titled 'Alan Davie, With Essays by Douglas Hall and Michael Tucker,' contains an extensive catalog of Davie's oeuvre and a wealth of illustrations and color plates and is available in Britain (published by Lund Humphries). It will appear in the United States in April.

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