Now Featuring Christian Davies
Oakland painter Christian Davies works with infinite patience and infinite variation. His process is grounded in the grids and imagery of quilts, and he uses the restrictive rules of painting to find surprising moments of openness for himself and his viewer.
MH: Quilt patterns make up a huge part of the imagery you work with. Before we talk about what they’re like to work with as paintings, can you talk about where your interest in this kind of pattern began?
CD: My interest in quilts comes from my mother who was a quilter. So I grew up with them around me and going to quilt shops often. The stories and origins and what these blocks/patterns have meant to people is really fascinating. Also just the idea of how conditions in a region would affect the types of work being made by quilters is really an interesting thing for me.
I’m drawn to things that have a built-in quality of infinite possibility for individual expression from an original source. So the idea of a quilt sourced from a traditional pattern that turns into a one of a kind object is really an interesting thing as a subject matter for painting. I can use one pattern over and over, really exploring it to no end. I’m also really drawn to the number of very personal associations that a number of viewers would have to a quilt. We all have our own associations and memories with what a quilt means to us personally.
MH: Now that you’ve been working with quilt motifs for a while, can you reflect on how do they serve a painting practice for you? As opposed to say, working with fabric? Or investigating other traditions of pattern?
CD: In my practice the quilt is a platform for exploring intentionality and randomness in the choices I make. I’m fascinated by and love the challenge of working within the of quilt patterns. I do everything in service to the block. So I’ll pick a pattern I want to work with and then learn the block so I can let it move around later in the painting as it wants. They sometimes work as color puzzles that solve themselves. My practice is very unplanned after the grid is laid and I understand the block, but I do stick to the math and proportions that could translate for a quilter. I’ll have a direction I want to go in, a palette I want to work with, or pattern I want to approach differently, but I let the pattern work itself out and then have to answer questions that come up in the process.
MH: Can you talk specifically about the images for your LPP print series? Where do the patterns you started with come from, and what kinds of color and rearrangement have you been thinking about as you worked on these images?
CD: The pieces that I did for this print series started with my wanting to think about how I might approach working with actual fabric. The watercolor washes as a ground were sort of a meditation on what that might look like for me. All six pieces really started with thinking about Anni Albers and a series of prints she did in the late ’70s, Second Movement II in particular. There’s something interesting to me in taking one block or pattern and seeing if there’s room for it to stretch a bit with repetition. There is also a lot of a pattern that is listed as Untitled that I discovered in an Amish quilt which is like an exploded or maybe expanded herringbone. I keep a lot of pattern references and look for ones that feel like there could be something interesting when that pattern was employed at a scale not usually expected.
Two of the pieces (the red and blue symmetrical) are really close to the Anni Albers as far as arrangement. The other four I feel like were about junctions and how the breaks in the pattern or realignment of bigger blocks of the original with some other patterns mixed in. Those junctions let you pause try to understand where it’s going next, spend time there and then have to reassess what you’re seeing. So while the forms are interesting I’m hoping it forces a little bit more time spent with the viewer.
MH: You often sign your work with text, but not your actual name, using OK, okay or the infinity sign. I think you made a reference to tagging when we touched on this in a studio visit. It’s quite affirmative and optimistic, even with the many ways we can interpret the statement “OK.” What do these signature mean to you?
CD: OK can be affirmative but it’s not strictly anything at the same time. Sort of like quilts and even landscapes, OK is really a subjective thing. I think OK crept into my work and life while dealing with an ill family member. Things are what they are and that’s OK. OK can also be emphatic. I guess slipping an OK onto a painting is like a little nugget for whoever ends up in front of a painting. Maybe it lets someone have a wholly different experience looking at what’s otherwise just abstract painting. I think the infinity sign works very much in the same way. Forever can be the best way to love something and sometimes a wait is also forever. Really though, it’s always OK and you’ll take more from those two letters than CD.
MH: When I visited your studio in July, I saw how impressively productive you are. How do process, time and repetition function for you? Duration and endurance must figure a bit, and the notion of labor or perhaps, more optimistically, mantra. I ask because these steps are not hidden, like they are in some other processes, they’re right there in the mark-making and painting, as content.
CD: The work definitely serves as a mantra. The time spent in preparing the surface and laying out a grid and then figuring out the block I’m going to work with is very distracted, doing other things around the studio. When I start in on a pattern I let go on automatic sort of and it can be a very meditative couple of hours. I don’t meditate but I would imagine it can be both very difficult and very hard to stop at times. same. I can’t imagine how someone could hand piece and then quilt a quilt, but I trying to match my process or experience to that of the source material.
MH: Another thing that’s very obvious in viewing your work in person is that it’s fairly rough-and-tumble, in spite of the strict geometric underpinnings. Dents, fingerprints, brushmarks are all visible. Is this a callback to the real life use and wear of quilts? Is it to something else?
CD: Thinking back to my wanting the pieces to really function as closely as possible to a quilt, I think all of the process and the dents and wobbly lines and fingerprints is a way of surfacing the amount of work that goes into an actual quilt that lets it achieve the effect that it has as an object. I don’t mind showing the grid because it sort of connects the top to the backing in a way like a quilt. So it’s important for me to have it appear almost designed from a distance, and yet be very clearly a handmade thing. Also quilts are special to people but not always really precious; they’re used, they’re worn in. I want the finished piece to visually hold you like a blanket might, so that texture really helps in adding layers to what could otherwise just be color fields.
MH: You also have other painting/drawing practices that intersect with the OK/infinity text we talked about. You seem to be incorporating other, one-off texts with general meanings (or multiple meanings) there too. How do these drawings fit into your practice? And in a painting practice that’s set up for iteration and series, how do you occasionally cut loose and play and allow yourself to mess up?
CD: The smaller more gestural landscapes and drawings that often have text accompanying them are how I kick off and just play with ideas. I’m not sure how they really interplay with the quilt work exactly. The text is very open ended and subjective and the landscapes often composites of from memory. I guess you could say that I’m still making things that really let the viewer project themselves into the piece however it makes sense to them. I’m definitely there but especially the landscapes carry a sense of humor and openness that is porous. They are super loose and done quickly, it’s not about process but just getting paint out there and then editing later if at all.
I do bring out watercolor kits with me when I’m traveling, camping, hiking or whatever. That’s really for me and is a way to check in with sketching which isn’t something I do much of regularly. Painting en plein air is a way to just paint, the questions are really much more formal and there’s a whole lot more freedom in what choices you make and what you can choose to ignore. It’s also really fun to just sit and paint in the woods or at the beach.
MH: Besides the tradition of quilting, what are some other influences you hold close?
CD: I was fortunate that my parents were really supporting of my making art from a really young age and we went to a number of museums regularly growing up. The Menil, MFAH and Kimball (Ft. Worth) really were my entry points to painting and art, thankfully they had really varied collections. I feel really fortunate to have been exposed to artist like Agnes Martin, Suzanne Valadon, Philip Guston, Paul Klee and many more from a young age. I also really like geology, which I think must really seep in somehow, it’s all about process and minor variations in conditions to produce a very physical result. I definitely think of how a landscape was made when I’m painting them. Having an understanding of why a hill is where it is or what the extended history or a place might have looked like is a great to get some perspective on where you’re at and how maybe things are OK.