Essay by Rebecca Morrill, November 2016
Five Years Time: Karen Davies’ art from 2011–16
When I first encountered one of Karen Davies’ artworks she was in the middle of making it. Perched up a stepladder and wearing a facemask and gloves, she was pressing loose graphite powder into a larger-than-door-sized vertical rectangle on the wall of a gallery. The action of applying layer after layer of this grey substance seemed as much a part of the work as the end result, and I watched for a while, transfixed by the physical exertion that this activity entailed. The work was titled Unseen (2011), alluding both to its revealing imperfections in the seemingly pristine gallery wall and also to the work’s destiny. It existed as a ‘finished’ piece for the public to view for one night only, before it was wiped away and painted over – leaving its traces unseen within the layers of a wall on which other artworks would be created or displayed.
Davies had told me prior to that occasion that drawing was her medium, yet this piece seemed to exist in several artistic categories: first, it was rooted in durational performance art – although the public were not officially invited to observe it being made, a time-lapse film of its creation was made and published online (see below). Then the energetic yet controlled gestures to cover the surface all over seemed more akin to the Abstract Expressionist painting techniques of, say, Jackson Pollock, than polite pencil-on-paper mark-making of artists who draw. And finally, the resulting smooth, shiny rectangle brought to mind Minimalist, geometric sculptures of Carl Andre, Donald Judd et al.
Making work within this liminal state between easily defined artistic categories has at times frustrated Davies. During her post-graduate studies in Fine Art at Chelsea College of Art, she observed how the painters gravitated towards each other, forming easy bonds via their shared material and art historical concerns. Davies also worked with paint – both oil and acrylic – covering large MDF blocks with colour and presenting them as sculptural monoliths, freestanding in space. She applied paint the way she applied graphite powder, pushing around the pigment with her hands, not with brushes. Her move towards using colour followed explorations into intuitive mark-making with printing ink that formed a series of confident, bright monotypes produced in collaboration with a printmaker. Yet Davies wouldn’t label herself a ‘painter’ or ‘sculptor’ or ‘printmaker’ – such terms being too narrowly restrictive and still, even in the 21st century, too loaded with the burden of (predominantly male) art history. So how to explain her practice?
In search of a material that was free of such weighty associations, Davies commenced a series of ‘paintings’ using clay. Here she pressed sticky wet clay directly onto a flat rectangle of wall delineated with masking-tape. As the clay dried, shrank and cracked over the subsequent days, sections of the surface peeled away, falling forwards in curls and bringing with it layers of white paint from the wall itself. Here was another work combining elements from sculpture, painting, and crucially, durational time.
Another less conventional material for Davies’ work has been plasticine. Beloved by children for modelling purposes, she has explored its potential as an art medium in a number of ways: pushing and pressing it across paper into thin smears and explosions of colour, covering large sheets of aluminum to create pieces that both celebrate and mock monochrome paintings, or shaping it into diminutive objects, which were then photographed close-up, magnifying each fold, crack or fingerprint on the surface. These photographs of miniature sculptures were given the incongruous title ‘Monuments’ – and this gentle wit in the titling of works is something that recurs across her work. She often turns to pop-song titles for inspiration, such as You Know Your Problem, You Keep it All In (2013), her truly monumental plasticine work, a sphere made of around 70kg of the material. The piece was built up in layers of bright, contrasting colour around an initial, hand-sized ball to a final 50cm diameter. Then carefully sliced to reveal the strata of sharp layers within, the result is simple yet supremely seductive.
Alongside these experiments with colour and materials, Davies has also continued to develop works more connected to ‘conventional’ drawing. First on plain paper, then moving onto pre-printed grids, she filled sheets with rows of tiny circles and dots. From a distance the page looks monochrome but on closer inspection the labour involved in their creation is revealed and viewer may well be simultaneously impressed and baffled. They are exercises in endurance and patience yet Davies also talks of these works as interstitial pieces. She goes back to making them between other projects, a kind of default act of creativity where there is a guaranteed and predetermined output for the input of time and energy. These works also connect Davies to quieter, less ego-centric strands of art history: Sol Lewitt, Agnes Martin and Eva Hesse – artists with whom Davies felt more able to connect, not least by the inclusion of some women practitioners.
Issues around gendered creativity came into sharp relief for Davies when she saw the Ice Age Art exhibition at the British Museum in 2013 and learned of a recent line of academic enquiry that proposes that the archaeological artefacts of this distant era, some 40,000 years ago, were in fact produced by women. The idea of the ‘genius’ (male) artist is an extremely recent construct when put into such a timeline, and female creativity shifts away from being a facet of the late-twentieth century women’s rights movement, to a core part of humanity’s entire history. This then found a place in Davies’ work by way of collages in which so-called ‘Venus’ figurines interplay with, overlap and interrupt her hand-made works – paintings, monoprints and drawings. The effect is a clash of ancient and modern that ultimately unites the whole lineage of creativity from pre-history to now, and reframes mark-making as something as fundamental to our species as upright walking or use of language.
The problem, of course, of writing a text on any living artist, and especially one with a practice as varied and experimental as Davies, is that even as the last full stop is typed, the text is probably already out of date. The artist is always planning future projects, or having chance encounters that will take their work in new and as yet unknown directions. Yet the past five years have seen a rapid development of Davies’ practice, so there is something fitting about taking a moment to pause in the liminality of the present, to reflect backwards on the journey so far, before breathing deeply and looking forward.
Unseen, graphite powder on wall, dimensions variable, 2011
Fallen Venus #1, oil and collage on paper, 35 x 35cm, 2016