Monday, November 17, 2008

Art Space Talk: Mel Davis

Mel Davis holds an MFA from The San Francisco Art Institute (2005). She is the recipient of two grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, (2007,2006), the Irene Pijoan Memorial Award for Painting and a Visual Artist grant from the Conseil des Art et Lettres du Quebec (2001). Her work is part of international public and private collections; Wellington Management, Boston, Capitol Group, Los Angeles, Hyatt Hotels, Santa Clara and Concordia University, Canada. Mel Davis has been featured in publications such as New American Paintings,(2004), Magenta Carte Blanche: Vol2 Painting (2008) and Studio Visit Magazine (2008).

Untilted 10, oil on found wood, 11"x12", 2008

Brian Sherwin: Mel, you studied at Concordia University in Montreal, The Slade School of Art in London, and the San Francisco Art Institute. Can you discuss your academic years? Did you have any influential art instructors?

Mel Davis: Concordia University was an incredibly nurturing place to make art. It's soft critiques and encouraging atmosphere made this place very special to me. Enthusiasm for painting was contagious. It was 10 years ago that I attended this institution for a BFA and the friends I made then remain my closest to this day. We all still paint as well which is astonishing and admirable.
A brief stint at the Slade in London reinforced a respect to the long tradition of painting. Faculty there are experimental but within the confines of traditional parameters. For example they were really big on setting up the painting palette in a customary fashion, something that I had never done before. It is a useful technique to learn, but my rebellion did not sit well with them.
The San Francisco Art Institute was a difficult place to make paintings. A lot of students came into the painting program, but then abandoned the discipline for the New Genres department or installation/performance/video arts. As a result painting became unpopular and something one had to defend doing. Grad school was pretty cliquey and I felt isolated most of the time but in an adverse way I left feeling prepared and really sure of who I am and what I wanted to do as an artist. Speaking with other artists this experience seems pretty typical of grad school. The affliction of a tough love philosophy appears to be the way serious institutions build their artists.

The great thing about grad school was the level of sophistication the conversations held. Memorable conversations with faculty members such as Christopher Brown, Pegan Brooke and John Zurier have shaped the way I think about painting.
Untitled 4, oil on found wood, 13"x11", 2008

BS: How have your travels-- studying art in three different countries-- helped you to mature as an artist? Do your travels influence you?

MD: I think travel is essential for growth in any discipline. Three weeks in Tuscany and Umbria remain the most important and educational time for me. Seeing the Piero della Francesa tour I was able to experience a level of history in painting that made me realize in a really profound way how resilient painting as an art forum is. I was filled with hope and a new found seriousness and urgency to be part of this incredible community. Looking at paintings that transcend time and place will instill a respect for the forum and a humility that is essential to any artists practice.

BS: Give our readers some insight into your art. What do you strive to achieve with your work?

MD: A respect to the tradition of painting, to be in close proximity to nature, specifically light, a sense of both mystery and revelation, accuracy and spontaneity,

Untitled 5, oil on found wood, 12"x5", 2008

BS: Can you discuss some of your methods?

MD: I manipulate these wood objects before, during and after the painting process by hammering, ripping, wrestling and sanding. It forces a characteristic in my paintings that can be interpreted as violence, however beyond this they also function as artifact. The process of artifact is a violent one. It speaks of civilizations lost, broken territories and abandoned communities. I am purposefully aging the paintings. I see them as fractured paintings clipped from a larger endeavor.

BS: What about specific influences? Do you adhere to any specific art tradition, so to speak? Are you inspired directly by any specific artist from the past?

MD: For these works I was directly influenced by the Fayum mummy portraits from Roman Egypt. These portraits are in varying stages of decay; displaying centuries of elapsed time yet contain an uncommon tenderness that is found in master portraiture. They speak of the great tradition of painting whilst showing how natural and instinctive making a painting can be.
Untitled-- windy sail, oil on found wood, 7"x9", 2008

BS: What are you working on at this time? Can you give our readers some insight into your most current work?

MD: I am continuing with the found wood paintings. Lately they have been speaking of the particular light in Scotland. I recent trip here has been an influence. I am also thinking about a new body of work that pays tribute to the fan paintings made by Hiroshige from the Edo period. These exquisite paintings display everyday moments and settings executed in the richest of pallets. They are playful and decorative. I think it would be a cool challenge to interpret these works today.

BS: I noticed that you have been very active with the NavtaSchulz Gallery. You have also been featured at the Bridge Art Fair. Can you give us some highlights of your exhibition history?

MD: Sadly the NavtaSchulz Gallery folded earlier this year. But Ryan Schulz worked hard for his artists, trying to place the work in important collections. This gallery was kind enough to take a chance on me when I was still in grad school, which meant a lot to me. I've been pretty lucky, participating in group and one person shows around this country and Canada, it's been a little tough showing consistently here in the Bay Area; there are too many artists and not enough spaces.

Untitled-- Scotland #1, oil on found wood, 12"x16", 2008

BS: Will you be involved with any upcoming exhibits?

MD: I am currently having a one person exhibition at Larry Becker Contemporary Art in Philadelphia.

BS: Speaking of exhibiting… what do enjoy about displaying your art in public view? Do you see it as part of the process, so to speak?

MD: Before this show in Philadelphia, I didn't really see it as part of my process. Larry and Heidi Becker have a gift when it comes to hanging a show. They taught me something about my work, about it's relationships and nuances that I didn't realize existed before. Previously I was never really excited about the way my work hung in a gallery or exhibition space.

Untitled-- Scotland #2, oil on found wood, 11"x14", 2008

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art or the goals that you have?

MD: I like this quote from Tom Marioni-
"The artist's role in society is to observe real life and report on it poetically. If the movement of his materials is sure and honest, the work becomes a beautiful gesture.”

You can learn more about Mel Davis by visiting her website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin
Senior Editor

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