Posts Tagged ‘Eleven Rivington’

Satisfy Me

Monday, October 4th, 2010

TM Davy at Eleven Rivington

For his NYC solo debut at Eleven Rivington, SVA alumnus and instructor TM Davy (BFA ‘02) has selected a group of drawings and paintings of himself, his boyfriend, Liam, and jeweled glimpses of a young couple’s household.  Supremely skilled, TM offers a rare encounter with a painting practice that celebrates the craft distinct from the concept, yet equally important and born from the same talent.  He has mad skills.

The finished paintings are classical, insofar as they are pictures constructed with measured goals and worldly ambition.  That is, they are staged and restaged, cultivated from studies, and arranged with aesthetic intentions.

However, TM does not shy away from “the magic moment” that might otherwise be the domain of a photographer, nor does he suppress the work that results from these spontaneous revelations.  Studies of Liam reading and sleeping reveal TM’s process, and zoom in on the shared intimacy of this work: even a familiar face – or the other half of a single soul – can be uncharted and fertile for discovery.  On the other hand, knowing someone inside out enables understanding and synchronicity – completing the other’s sentence – that individuals or mismatched couples can only envy.  A good example of this acquired ability is the gestural The Beauty of  Moral Act, which miraculously hovers between rugged and ethereal, recording the flesh that warmed it, like the Shroud of Turin.

TM Davy, The Beauty of a Moral Act, 2010

“Love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies.” –Aristotle

MB: This show, among other things, is clearly a show of gay art, yet it doesn’t employ camp, irony, snarkiness, nor overt sexual imagery, which are all qualities I’m accustomed to seeing in young gay art.  Instead, you unflinchingly address love and life with a sacramental seriousness.  From the subjects to the virtuosic paint handling, your work comes through as rarefied and earnest, to be read at face value and not as a joke on painting.  Where is the irony?

TM: Socrates is secretly guarding my irony.

MB: And irony could guard secrets in your work.  So maybe I’m mistaken about the “face-value” nature of the work, and I’ve missed the hidden strata of meanings.  Otherwise, the work is unguarded and vulnerable.  Which is it?

TM: Every now and then I will revisit Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp, I suppose because I do feel a certain complex affinity to camp, but know that I am not making work that has the intention to be campy.  She herself was a bit uncomfortable in her appreciation of it, and I do think there is good reason that it grew largely and rather naturally out of the homosexual culture of the last century.  Being forced to the edges of a larger culture, there is the advantage of being able to see the humor and strangeness of it all more clearly.   But the appreciation of camp is different from the intentional crafting of camp, which is far less enjoyable to me.  As she points out:

“20. Probably, intending to be campy is always harmful…”

Then there is number 34:

“Camp taste turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment. Camp doesn’t reverse things. It doesn’t argue that the good is bad, or the bad is good. What it does is to offer for art (and life) a different — a supplementary — set of standards.”

I think that might be where you find a little bit of camp in my work.  Gay sex on used bed sheets as an object of beauty seems to have layers of irony when I step away from it, but the work is 100% sincere.  Being sincere risks being unintentional camp (often the best kind), which gets more complicated when you are aware and excited by the risk.  I do, however, fancy that I would fall in with Genet if Sontag were considering my work. “The Camp ideas in Our Lady of the Flowers are maintained too grimly, and the writing itself is too successfully elevated and serious, for Genet’s books to be Camp. ”

TM Davy at Eleven Rivington

So, to address your question of irony more directly, it is a complex relationship of awareness and refusal, something that is more interesting to me in the process of making art than more obvious and deflective irony-loaded strategies.   Most of the summer, painting Liam in the yard, I was just trying to communicate a personal feeling.

MB: Maybe the awareness and refusal you mention are exhausted in the demanding techniques you use.  To paint as attentively as you do is a constant, unrelenting process of editing, adjusting, modulating, bookmarking, and planning.  You make studies, advancing some and rejecting others.  You mix colors with individual purposes, but which will also have to interact optimally with other colors.  The surface gets painted, wiped clean, painted again, and then comes another layer of the same.  Do you think the intensive focus you achieve during studio time preoccupies you so much that you simply can’t be bothered to play a pinball game of ironic deflection?

TM: Certainly my paintings can be an arduous process, but I don’t think this is a matter of exhaustion within my working method.  I think the refusal to employ more obvious ironies comes from a feeling that the “ironic twist” may be a defense mechanism.  

It was necessary for a time, no doubt, but I think it is interesting to present a point of view that is less guarded.  Representational painting and “queer art” are two places where irony surfaces very strongly in contemporary art, perhaps because the risk involved is great on various levels.  Grabbing for a joke while trying to confess something deep may be sort of self-betrayal, admitting a failure or outsiderness before the greater truths have time to settle on their own.  I would feel less risk in camping it up, certainly.  So I suppose I am consciously putting the “ironic twist” aside.  Romance aside, there may even be something political in taking love and painting as seriously as I do.  I joked at first about Socratic irony being part of it, but let me ask you; what kind of ‘ironic twist” might you expect to see from my work? (Maybe I don’t want to know.)

TM Davy at Eleven Rivington

MB: I don’t detect an ironic twist and I don’t want to.  I like walking into the gallery and feeling assured that I’m not missing an inside joke.  Instead, I can spend my energy on uncovering what is actually there.  The conditions for a “double-rainbow” awesome experience, including inspiration – are all there in the gallery, and I just need to put in the time to look closely.

And this makes me wonder about your process.  All of the imagery in these paintings comes from your immediate surroundings in real life.  On canvas – or pillowcase or bedsheet – you restage and re-enact these real-life events and therefore invoke the history of painting: genre scenes, still life, portraits, history painting.  So it’s as if you see historical precedents and patterns resurfacing in your daily life.  You seem to understand your life as the historical outcome that it actually is.  Liam is your muse and model.  The Haircut is like a contemporary Pietá, or coronation, or even you as Samson and Liam a cherubic, benevolent Delilah.  So as long as you keep up on your apartment rent, the essential ingredients will be in place for a creative undertaking.

TM Davy, The Haircut, 2010

TM: We have a small garden yard that I began to see as an entire world the more time we spent back there.  Liam is a teacher and had off all summer, so I was making something around him every chance I got, and he gave me an incredible amount of time.  Definitely the conditions were right this summer for a creative undertaking.

The Haircut, for sure, is a re-staging of a haircut Liam had just given me, begun by blocking in the memory of it, then alternating the observation of pieces from life.   Liam would pose with his hand on a Greek bust we have.  I would pose in front of a long mirror, though I had to conjure the gaze of my eyes in a way, as the direct gaze of self portraiture just wasn’t right for it.  It all just felt like something that should be painted in that more “finished” way, a simple action that contains a great deal.  I think you can feel, somehow, the time that was spent between the two of us.  At the same time, hopefully, I was also able to invoke the immediacy and feeling of that recreated moment.

Picasso, La Coiffure, 2010

I try not to address any one historical motif too directly with the newer work, but do see myself within a historical continuum.  From the Greeks to Felix Gonzalez-Torres, there is a lot that I think I am dealing with, perhaps even subconsciously, that finds its way into any given choice or moment.  It’s strange, but in The Haircut, I was at times aware of everything you mentioned.  I remember also thinking of Picasso’s La Coiffure at the Met, and feeling sure that he knew that same tension of connection and pushing, of not sacrificing a self creation to history, and yet still excitedly conversing with and challenging the ghosts of it.

Other work, like the drawing of Liam reading, was made completely in a moment.   I had been making pastels of plants, and he was totally and wonderfully immersed in the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.  I saw that and it grabbed me. He may have become aware that I was drawing him but didn’t show it.  I didn’t want to disturb him or forfeit to “posing,” so the energy of the drawing is really the energy of getting it all down before he naturally shifted pose or was let go by Gertrude Stein.

TM Davy, "Sum Time," 2010

Paul Cadmus, Jerry, 1931

Then there are other things like Morning Fence that are made mostly from an impression or memory of a thing.  Several times over the summer I would wake up and look out the window and the fence would appear exactly like Morning Fence.  But it wouldn’t when I got closer, and it would only last for a few minutes.  I always felt like I was still dreaming when it would do that prismatic color thing, perhaps a magic trick of light and reflection from the lot behind us, and I wanted to make a painting of it.  It’s a more Bonnard like way of working: whatever works for the work. The fence comes in elsewhere, because its there, but it is also something of a symbol or motif of this inner world that you can look into and out of, but that is contained and safe in a way.

Our rent is manageable now, and I seriously hope they don’t raise it next year.

TM Davy, Morning Fence, 2010

MB: It’s funny how drawing a subject from life can become a race.  You have to get as much on the paper as possible before they change positions. Maybe it’s not so bad with cats.

TM Davy, In the Garden Wild, 2010

Liam was reading about Toklas, but what were you reading while painting this summer?  Was there any inspiring text or other material behind the body of work?  You mentioned Genet…

TM: Over the past few months I’ve read Art Power by Boris Groys, The Blue Star by Robert Ferro, City Boy by Edmund White, and This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I’m half way into Atlantis (The Autobiography of a Search) also by Robert Ferro and his partner Michael Grumley.  They both died of AIDS in 1988, were members of the Violet Quill, and had a sort of beautiful, creative, open relationship full of magic and searching.  Inspiring lives and work, for sure.  Tim Hull recommended them to me, and I’ve learned that Tim understands me completely.

I did also go back and reread The Thief’s Journal and Our Lady of the Flowers by Genet, but this time more in the way you might read poetry, some chapters more than once, here and there pulling truths and inspiration.  I stole the title “the beauty of a moral act” from Thief’s Journal:

“The beauty of a moral act depends upon the beauty of its expression.  To say that it is beautiful is to decide that it will be so.  It remains to be proven so.  This is the task of images, that is, of the correspondences with the splendors of the physical world.  The act is beautiful if it provokes, and in our throat reveals, song.”

Genet uses a language of religiosity and beauty to describe personal experiences that lie clearly outside of what common American/Christian culture would think of as a moral world.  But to me it is not about negation or inversion or critique.  It’s more what I pointed out in Sontag’s notes; an alternative set of standards born of a complex humanity.  One can build their own “sacred” world, offer up their own set of values, their own communion of personally-anointed saints and symbols.  It may be that those values seem subversive to the values of others, but freedom exists only when our ideas are free to argue and disagree (or just coexist).

John Waters, Catholic Sin, 2009

Obviously, art holds ideas.  Even the care in making that work can be understood as an idea.  It’s hard to know what might be said against the things that “provoke me to song,” but I trust the instinct and agree with Genet.  At the very least, the task has helped me to deeply appreciate the beauty of my own gay and nonreligious existence.

TM Davy, Self Portrait, 2010

MB: So, like Genet, you choose a position, and not a negation.  Rather than fighting opposition, you find another route and lead by example.  That makes you the anti-camp, right?  Or counter-camp?  If you were monkeying with heteronormative imagery in a surreptitious manner, then that would be camp.  But you’ve pioneered – and now exhibited – your own private Idaho.  No wonder this body of work is sited among the premises – the diocese – of TM and Liam: the studio, the bedroom, the backyard garden.  Another aspect that makes you counter-camp is the reverence for nature.

TM: Whitman’s “Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances” is something I was reading and thinking about a lot all summer.  In there is maybe the entire reason that I paint.

MB: Whitman’s passage makes perfect sense given the triangle of you, Liam, and your work:

“When he whom I love travels with me, or sits a long while holding me by the hand,
When the subtle air, the impalpable, the sense that words and reason hold not, surround
us and pervade us,
Then I am charged with untold and untellable wisdom—I am silent—I require nothing

Whitman, Genet

TM: Whitman also spells out his homosexuality in the last line of the poem, I think:

“He ahold of my hand has completely satisfied me.”

“Completely satisfied”…  110 years ago!   Talk about pioneering!

It’s that moment of deep settling sweetness against the rest of the poem that I love.  So much tension against the doubt he expresses earlier, that dark suspicious feeling that we may not really know anything; that the afterlife is an unlikely fable, and reality may be some strange and unsettling illusion.  I understand that feeling constantly in ways that I couldn’t explain any better than Whitman, and it’s why I think I feel drawn to depict the reality and forms of things that do “satisfy me”.  The other half, that “terrible doubt”, is in my work also.  It just sort of lurks around… like Ginsberg in a Supermarket in California.