Jun 23, 2016 email interview by writer John P. Miller of The Taos News Tempo, on the occasion of Ronald Davis’ late summer 2016 exhibition at Hulse/Warman Fine Art, Taos, New Mexico.
JPM: Let’s start with title for the exhibition: “Ronald Davis: Still Alive.” Did you choose this title? What can you tell me about its meaning?
I was having a conversation with my wife Barbara, laughing wryly about what it’s like to live for a long time, especially as an artist. I never expected to live to be this old — I just had my 79th birthday — and there’s something darkly amusing about still being here, living and wrestling with art, art galleries, art dealers, art fairs, art sales, arguing about who’s going to pay the shipping, wondering if anyone will ever buy art again. Moreover, a couple of years ago I was very ill and had a near-death experience, which has changed me. It has taken over two years to heal as much as I think I’m ever going to. I’ve only very recently been able to go into the studio to make anything new; it was very difficult to start again, to get back into it. I love working with Jerry and Clint and I felt inspired to work; having a show deadline is stressful, but it has helped to move me forward. Pondering all this activity, I remarked, “Well, I’m still alive, making art…” and that became the title of the show.
JPM: What can you tell me about the work that will be exhibited at the show?
Not being able any longer to perform stoop labor making large paintings on canvas, I enjoy drawing and rendering “pixeldust” paintings on my Mac Pro computer, using state of the art 3D modeling software (Cinema 4D). Some of the works in this show depict Dodecagons, twelve-sided objects; and some depict staurolites, a rare crystal. When I came to New Mexico in 1992, I discovered staurolites at the Taos Gem And Mineral shop. I thought they were incredibly beautiful, and I was drawn to them aesthetically and as powerful medicine objects. Staurolites are quite rare in the world; New Mexico is one of the only places where they’re found. I wear one all the time around my neck for spiritual protection.
As for the Dodecagon shapes, I’m pretty well known for them since the 1960s, and I still find myself experimenting with new ways to create them. In the 1960s, I manually, painstakingly worked out the geometry of the angles, the perspective, the shadows, the color, and I figured out how to use pigmented polyester resin and fiberglass to make them very large. I still do that today with 3D software, and while that’s less physically heroic than those 1960s resin Dodecagons, making them on a computer presents equally challenging technical problems and demands I make critical choices involving lighting, POV, color, shading, skins, textures, luminescence, and output.
JPM: How did your relationship with Hulse/Warman develop? Why is theirs the right venue for this exhibition?
My old friend, the late Charles Strong, introduced me to Jerry Warman and Clint Hulse some years ago.
JPM: I see that you have worked in several different art forms, perhaps most of all in 3D rendering and design. Is there one in particular that you prefer? Why?
Well, it’s not quite correct that I’ve worked mostly with 3D rendering applications during my entire career, although I’ve used computers quite a bit since the 1980s to design and sketch paintings; and from the 1990s to the present, to occasionally create entire series of digital renderings. But before all that, in the early 1960s as a student at the San Francisco Art Institute, I became fascinated with the Renaissance artist Paolo Uccello, who was himself fascinated with perspective and the depiction of objects using it. At SFAI, a course in perspective wasn’t in the curriculum, per se, so I taught myself, and eventually stumbled into a style of painting that can excavate walls, and shift the point of view of the viewer: Perspective illusion, which is what 3D rendering programs are all about.
If I’ve made any contribution at all, it is that I countered the glacial movement of serious twentieth century painting since Cezanne towards flatness, by reintroducing the theorems of three-dimensional Renaissance mathematical perspective into my made objects. This is my legacy, my contribution to the art history books.
Later, continuing to develop this style, I was naturally drawn to the wonderful new digital tools of our age: powerful computers and brilliant software that allowed me to extend further what I had been able to do with resin and fiberglass, canvas and paint.
JPM: I read a quote from you: “I really had no aspirations to be an artist.” What did you aspire to be before your art career took off? What else can you tell me about this statement?
As art critic Dave Hickey said in a recent essay, the cultural desert of my Wyoming high plains youth failed to prepare me for “the local cotillion.” I tried college, complete with the 1950s social horrors of fraternity life, which wasn’t for me. I was drafted, but it was decided by all concerned that I was not suited for the military. I thought I could live on the beach in Mexico and eat fish heads and rice, but my father said no. At this point, I met and befriended Charles Strong, with whom I shared a love of racing fast cars; I wanted to be a racer, or possibly a writer or musician. Mostly a sports car race driver. I blew up an engine and went into a ditch in my twin-cam MG-A once in La Junta, Colorado, and narrowly escaped being creamed by two guys in Porsche 550s going around me at 180 mph. I realized I might get killed doing this. That would have been OK at the time, but racing is a rich man’s sport, and I couldn’t afford it. (Later I found out that being an artist is much more dangerous… and just as expensive.) At Charlie’s suggestion, I switched to painting, and followed him to San Francisco to attend SFAI.
JPM: As your career developed, who or what inspired you? What were you challenged by?
During my first months in San Francisco I attended an exhibition of the Ben Heller Collection of Abstract Expressionism in the Palace of the Legion of Honor, the memorial building to the veterans of World War I. Out in front was one of the many casts of Rodin’s Thinker, squatting on a pedestal. Inside was Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles. I looked at it a long time, and was affected viscerally, literally. I didn’t know what it was, but there was a Joseph Cornell Box which transported me to the starry heavens. The pictures by Clyfford Still presented to me the stratified canyon walls of the mind and soul. My despair in that moment was that I would never be able to make a picture like that. Having been “churned up,” I struggled to learn and eclectically emulate the space and power of these great paintings. The buzz word at the time was “commitment,” or “existential commitment.” As a young artist, I had to admit I didn’t yet have anything to express, let alone a commitment to do so. These were issues of personal artistic development, abstract content, and style, problems that to me were overwhelming. But my concern was how to make a picture, not how to look at one. Rather than just emulate the great works of my predecessors was not enough. My strategy became to make a Mondrian in the style of Jackson Pollock, and a Pollock in the style of Mondrian. At the San Francisco Art Institute, instructor Frank Lobdell emphasized the importance of what you leave out of a painting, not what you put in.
Struggling to gain a finger hold in the formidable tradition of abstract painting, I synthesized Duchampian “object” and traditional, emotion-driven “expressionist” painting. For instance, even though I reintroduced perspective illusion – and the illusions of objects – into my painting, the objects themselves remained abstract and non-referential, although that’s usually up to the viewer.
Again, writer Dave Hickey puts it well when he says that I have been able to render plain something that is complex. I think this is true for the works in this show.
JPM: What brought you to Taos for the first time and what motivated you to move here permanently?
Well, I can say it had nothing to do with the light! In the early 1990s, I felt I had to get away from California — the traffic, crazy life in the fast lane, the crash of the art market, a relationship that wasn’t working out. A friend showed me some real estate brochures featuring the quiet, serene high desert mesa in Arroyo Hondo. I visited the property, loved it, sold my California studio, and built my Navajo-style hogan studio residence here.
JPM: Going back to the title for this show. As you have gotten older, how do you believe your artwork has changed or evolved?
I make it up as I go along!
As with most art forms, it’s easier to see evolution, transitions, and developments in retrospect. Lately, I’ve been working with Jennifer Lynch and my family to reorganize, clean, and catalogue everything in my studio and storage. As we go through all the art, it has been sometimes emotionally difficult to look at and revisit each piece, because the memories of life at the time I made it can be very vivid and strong.
Also, I get bored easily, and I have never been happy sticking with one style or series for very long. The result is a lot of variegation. It’s interesting when we can stand back and look at a painting that we realize is an important transitional piece, or one that was an experiment that may have failed but that led to a series that later succeeded, or one I stashed away long ago in a dark corner that literally comes to light after decades being hidden in old plastic wrap — and I can see that in spite of the experiments and the variegation in styles, every single piece, no matter how old, is related, or informs what came afterward.
JPM: Age causes many people to think about their legacy. What legacy do you believe you will leave or would you like to leave to the art world?
Sometimes people think I make my paintings – these objects – for them, or for art history. They’re wrong about that. The activity is selfish. On bad days, I feel it’s just a vehicle to confirm that I will be misunderstood. (But Facebook does a better job of that these days.)
At the same time, I’m keenly aware that there will be individuals and institutions interested in my legacy, and I do think about how my work will be looked at in the future, and I think sometimes about what will happen to the art. That’s partly why we are reorganizing and taking inventory in the studio and storage, so we know what we have and can begin to think about how and where to place the works that remain.
I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished as an artist. I reintroduced Renaissance perspective into the flattened picture plane of 20th century modern art, which will be referred to academically and aesthetically, I’m sure.
There’s another part of me that will be glad to give an extended Bronx cheer to the greater so-called art world when I check out.
But really, I believe that the true “art world” is one artist, in the studio, working.
JPM: I see that you have been exhibited many times in many galleries in many parts of the world. How does this show fit into that timeline? How will it be different? How do you expect it will impact people?
There will be several Pixeldust renderings, some of them smaller paintings, to fill Jerry and Clint’s walls. I’m not too concerned about how these Pixeldust works impact people, really; they are what I make these days, and they interest and delight me.