The moral meaning of the wilderness

In the wilderness personal identity is not defined – I like artists who keep on changing rather than one that keeps on churning out the same trademark work. So don’t expect more of the same from Juan Davila when you go to his exhibition that summarizes the last decade of his paintings at MUMA (Monash University Museum of Art). The exhibition is like going to one of those concerts where the band only plays songs from their latest album.

In three galleries of paintings at MUMA Davila takes the viewer from works that are familiar through to new directions in new paintings. Starting with the artist’s studio, with remains of his cut-up style but there is a change to Davila’s palette; it is lighter and the colors more subdued. The artist’s studio is the subject for the revolutionary realist Courbet but also for old Picasso endlessly painting nudes in an isolated loop of studio production.

Then in the next gallery there is an escape from the studio to painting en plein air. These Australian landscapes continue Davila’s change in palette along with a dramatic change of genre for Davila but not a change in political interest. What is the moral meaning of the wilderness? What is the moral landscape of Australia? Landscapes are the legendary great painting tradition of Australia, another way of conquering the land. Australians love the land, they love to mine, burn, despoil and finally turn into a nuclear waste dump. In Davila’s “Australia: Nuclear waste dumping ground” (2007) the bush runs out half way across the canvas then there is just a vacant sky and earth.

In the final gallery there are paintings of abstract, surreal forms hanging in fields of light paint. These inscapes, these psychological landscapes are another wilderness of paint and unknowable signs, a place between surrealism and abstract expressionism. Has Davila in these recent paintings attempted to revive the spirit of the Chilean surrealist Roberto Matta? (And, perhaps also, some of the late paintings of James Gleeson?)

This keynote exhibition of Davila’s recent paintings has previously been in Brisbane and Canberra. The exhibition also provides a platform for a new publication and a documentary video about Davila. The video was showing in MUMA’s lobby but I couldn’t see much of it on Saturday when it was crowded with people for the official opening of this and two other smaller exhibitions. “Collected Collaborations” a project based exhibition initiated by the Artist’s Book Research Group. And “The Devil Had a Daughter” printmaking with an allegorical, theatrical and macabre imagery; the exhibition takes it title from a dark and brooding monoprint by Janson Greig.

MUMA on the Caulfield campus still has that new gallery smell and an unfortunate name joining MOMA (Museum Of Modern Art), GOMA (Gallery Of Modern Art), MONA (Museum of Old and New Art), IMA (Institute of Modern Art), MCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) etc. All these acronyms are making taking about galleries sound like a Kurt Schwitter’s poem with a limited alphabet.

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About Mark Holsworth

Arts administrator, artist, musician, philosopher and writer. Writes Black Mark - Melbourne Art and Culture Critic. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

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