Thursday, June 11, 2015

Rhys Davies at Hope and Feathers: "When All My Five and Country Senses See" (Dylan Thomas)

Rhys Davies is the exhibiting artist in a rather unusual “residency” at Hope and Feathers Gallery in Amherst, Massachusetts. Davies’ plan is to honor both his home country -- Wales -- and his new Western Massachusetts home. Throughout the month of June, he will paint the likenesses of Dylan Thomas and Emily Dickinson onto papers mounted on the gallery’s largest wall. That wall of new images will be in constant view of Emily Dickinson’s bedroom windows, the room where she wrote all her poetry, in her home across the street. No pressure.

The gallery will be posting new photographs daily of the portraits-in-progress (at The photograph below shows the wall when we visited with the artist (all photographs here are my own). From my photograph’s angle, the Dylan Thomas portion (empty beer mug and Old Holborn box, so far) is shown in the foreground, and the Emily Dickinson is off to the left. This angled photograph will, I hope, display the artist’s lines and shadings, attached papers and textures:

As of this morning, the Emily Dickinson portion of the ongoing painting (posted online by the gallery) shows the view from her bedroom window over the family fields (where the gallery now stands). Davies works with papers on the gallery floor, roughing in images with charcoal and paint, and then places each well-worked fragment of the painting into its chosen spot on the wall. The artist and gallery have set up the space so that Davies is working, as much as possible, within his own regular studio surroundings, which include a teapot and cup, books from his studio, sketches, and drawing and painting materials. There is a bench for visitors to watch as Davies works each day.  Here is Rhys Davies in his gallery “studio”:

The portraits are progressing in dark charcoal, browns, greys and blacks, growing from small details to a larger-scale vision. Here is the finished portriat of Emily Dickinson:

This is serious life and art at the edge. Davies’ (completed) work on the same wall, called “Tryweryn,” [Dryweryn, in the Welsh language] is also created in this emblematic, nearly mythical approach. Davies has pictured the people of a small, agricultural, Welsh-speaking area, displaced by a distant governing body that legislated a dam:

The campaign to save the Tryweryn Valley and the village of Capel Celyn
 from being flooded to supply water to the city of Liverpool began on 20
 December 1955....The personal impact on the residents of Capel Celyn was
 enormous; many were forced to leave homes that had been in their families for
 generations.  Their loss, and all that it represented, has become iconic in Welsh
 politics and in the struggle over the Welsh language.  ‘Cofiwch Dryweryn
 [Remember Tryweryn] remains one of the most powerful slogans in the Welsh
 language and is seen as a rallying call of Welsh nationalism.

Not all the houses were completely destroyed before the construction began and, when the water levels decrease, some become visible once again. Ghosts. Here is Davies’ “Tryweryn”:

Davies first tackled this theme in art school in London, where the distance between Parliament and Wales must have seemed all too real. He says he felt hiraeth, a really deep longing, for home. The paintings then were blue, “large blue graveyard paintings,” he says. Years later, he has returned to the depths of Welsh identity in “Tryweryn,” but, I suspect, with rather more ferocity. Davies has portrayed these people with recognizable features, but these are not exacting portraits: the features are deepened, exaggerated. The heads are like carved stone, with strong expressions; they are both sad and frightening. They are painted at just a bit more than human scale, and yet they are so much larger than we are. Because of the way they are drawn, and the reason that they were drawn, this man and woman stand for a great deal more than themselves. A simple “lifelike” commissioned portrait might only have meaning to those who know the subject. But Davies’ emblematic drawings transform these faces through their particular context. These people stand for the village of Capel Celyn and its valley, gone forever.

“Tryweryn” offers a powerful reminder. Nature, in the form of those gathering clouds, can be indifferent to humans and their fragile farms, but humans often do greater damage. Another work, in the Hope and Feathers Gallery window, drawn in these same dark colors and scale, with figures framed by large, Gothic forms,
seems cut of the same Welsh stone.

This is one style of work by Rhys Davies. But across the room, there is an abrupt shift:

These paintings offer a changed subject, color, and medium; and there’s a foreground-background shift, just for starters. Here is “Mwyar Duon I,” which refers to realism without being, exactly, realistic:

This work reverts to light and flowers, beautiful flowers. We can feel the light hitting the petal and berry shapes and the leaves between them. Then there is a middle band of darker greens (and very delicate blacks). It’s the intricate underlayer and tangle of seeds and twists of stems and flowers reaching past one another to come into the light. The shapes are just heading into the abstract: still organic, but when we concentrate on any specific shape, we find it might just be un-definable as a flower or leaf that we know. The imagination here is heady, free, and fully at play, in ways that are different from the paintings on the adjoining wall.

The second large painting (the two bookend some smaller studies) “Mwyar Duon II” enters into a deeper color palette of greens and deep blues, with deeper shadows and many crossings-over of insistent lines.

These are flowers, too, but these have an abstract majesty to them. It is as if we wandered into a ruined church, only to be confronted suddenly by a massive window of dignified stained glass. Take any small section of this work and it won’t look like flowers at all... it will be deep imagination...  but, back up and see the whole and suddenly we are confronted by that insane overgrowth of green and riots of color that happen in New England every spring.

I asked Davies what accounts for the variation in subject, from “Tryweryn” to these thick explorations of natural growth? He seemed surprised by the question. “It’s all one, for me,” he said, “ the same.”

How is it the same? How does an artist go from one set of topics to a very distinct other, sharing only a time frame and a formal technique?

We can say it might be the artist’s common source, that the story of the flooded village told in blacks and browns is, of course, related not only to the Welsh people there but to its farms with their colorful crops; the dirt and plants, flooded in shadows or surviving in pinks and bright pinks, blues and greens, all part of Davies’ growing up with a consciousness formed by Carmarthen (Caerfyrddin).  Two subjects, presented through the eyes of one consciousness.

Or it could be an interesting “other.”  A woman who was visiting at the opening said to me, in an offhand way, “these seem Rousseau-ian.”  “Yes,” I said, “they are.”  And then I forgot about it until this morning.

And I looked through all my art books and throughout the web, because Henri Rousseau was not one of “my” artist people.  I do believe now that my oversight was a big mistake. Rousseau wanted to be William-Adolphe Bourgereau, a traditional painter of nudes accepted and lauded by the French Academie. But he wasn’t; he was much more. Picasso praised him during Rousseau’s lifetime, then disowned him later (as he would anxiously disown all of his important influences). Take a look at Rousseau’s first “jungle” painting, from 1891, “Tiger in a Tropical Storm: Surprised!”:

There was a show of Rousseau works, “Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris,” at the National Gallery of Art in 2005, and it travelled to the Tate Modern in 2006. It was a revelation to the critics, many of whom, like me, never thought much of Rousseau’s influential art-historical place. Here is a perceptive critic on the Rousseau he saw at the Tate:

[these were] pictures created on the scale of salon historical paintings, yet in a style calculated to resemble children’s illustration run amok.... There was a method, and an ambition, behind his assumed naivety .... [the paintings] are self-evidently too artful, too carefully conceived, to have been the products of mere unformed impulse .... No-one, before Rousseau, had made painting look so much like dreaming. 
                  Andrew Graham-Dixon, “Henri Rousseau, Jungles in Paris”
                  06 Nov 2005,

And suddenly I saw it. I saw the connection. Both Rousseau and Davies paint “on the scale of salon historical paintings,” but they both play extravagantly with subject matter. Rousseau painted jungles he never saw (he never left France, and visited botanical gardens and relied on postcards and the zoo for his inspiration). Davies begins to paint where Rousseau left off, dreams of jungle tangles he has never seen, exactly, either, and monumental faces that represent, but do not precisely resemble, the troubled farmers of his corner of Wales.

It’s the imagination, stupid.

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