Currently at Austin / Desmond is a show of Francis Davison, who made paper collages for just over thirty years until his death in 1984. Apart from a just-off-grid piece from 1971 (Green, White and Black) most of the works date from the last five years of Davison’s life. Though I had, I think, previously seen only one Davison in the flesh he is an artist I have been interested in since I first saw his works in reproduction; as it turns out, much of their subtlety is not reproducible. The Austin / Desmond exhibition gives a fairly good insight into Davison’s late production (his most important period), though it perhaps does not include his collages at the very height of their structural or colouristic ambition. It is however strong on the small collages Davison made in 1983 whilst recovering from an illness, that one earlier commentator has described somewhat poetically, given their unfolding structure and muted flesh-like tones, as not much bigger than an outstretched hand.
The private single-mindedness with which Davison faced and drew on the broad development of abstract art and the slowly progressing formal development that resulted could not be further from the sensibilities which currently constitute the artworld. The contrast is particularly striking because collage is clearly one of the dominant modes or strategies of current art (as has been the case for sometime). Across media the presence of collage can be felt in startlingly inexplicable presentation and dissonant juxtaposition.
Davison differs in that the separate elements in his collages worked toward coherence rather than dislocation. His aim, aided by the tonal and textural similarity of the papers he worked with, was integration, the creation of total, comprehensible images; instead of suggesting a shocking or unnerving entrance heightened by incongruity and incompleteness, he posited restraint, an ordered and perhaps faintly melancholy withdrawal. This needs qualification: here the oppositions between coherence and dislocation, the comprehensible and the inexplicable, entrance and withdrawal are perhaps not clear cut, each really depending on the other. If Davison’s work signals a withdrawal it is one which is remarkably and compellingly physically present; if his papers are tonally or texturally similar it also appears that he worked against their materiality as much as he worked with it and that they retain a stubbornness which he could never fully overcome; if his aim was integration he did not impose it or reach for a quick homogeny but rather sought it anew within each collage (in contrast to much current abstract art that trades – ironically or not – in minimalist or ‘smuggled’ high modernist aesthetics); and if his work is structurally coherent and comprehensible this heightens rather than lessens the difficulty in fully accounting for it (i).
Braque is clearly important here, though through his later work more than his papier colle (which he invented just shy of a full century ago). It likely not a coincidence that Davison’s life-long friend Patrick Heron wrote on Braque’s work and was himself heavily influenced by it. In the current exhibition the influence is particularly apparent in Davison’s muted palette, in the compressed feel of his intervals and through the manner in which his collages play flat areas of colour against line, with line sometimes delimiting a flat area and sometimes looping free of it. Like Braque, Davison returned ‘continually to the centre’. But where Braque ‘concentrate[d] things’, in Davison’s collages the centre is often left near empty, defined and made potent by implication (ii). The centre for Davison is a focal point around which his parts rotate or toward which they are orientated, as if (and this is especially strong in some of the small collages from 1983) the structure had been formed by the gentle pulling apart of a compact central mass. Even in works which have a strong positive central element (such as Yellows, Blue, White Horizontal on White Ground), this element often seems to gain its strength through its arrival in a place which the rest of the picture appears to vacate. That the collages always define their edges from the inside out, rather than being corralled by the already defined rectilinear edge of a sheet or canvas onto which they are collaged, is another aspect of this centrist orientation.
One final thing (though there is a lot more that could be said) on what I have called Davison’s ‘total images’. As a comparison between the work of 1971 and the rest of the exhibition indicates, his work grew increasingly unrestricted (though he still worked within a narrow range) and increasingly complex, able to contain and make coherent a large variety of spaces and structures. However it would be wrong to think of his collages as consisting of a whole, complete space. Rather, here spaces exist on a micro level and variously open up between small number of parts within localized areas of each collage; as our attention shifts (or as we move nearer or further away) different of these local intimations of space are revealed. As wholes the collages remain flat, though it is a flatness that gains force through the way in which its clear design can marshal and make singular the various spaces and complex structures of which it consists.
i. ‘Smuggled’ comes from Sam Rose, Mary Heilmann: Visions, Waves and Roads, Studio International, March 2012
ii. Braque quoted in Douglas Cooper, Georges Braque: the Evolution of a Vision, ‘G Braque’, The Tate Gallery, 1956