This essay was produced in conjunction with the exhibition Robert Davis: 1976, curated by Rashid Johnson, on view at CUE Art Foundation, January 11 - February 15, 2018. This text is included in the free exhibition catalogue available at CUE.
Welcome to Robert Davis’s memory. We’re here in between the years of 1975 and 1978 when the artist was between the ages of five and eight years old. He was living in Virginia. He was riding in a truck with his dad and grandfather and a bunch of construction materials. He was obsessed with Planet of the Apes. He was scared of swimming because he saw Jaws. He was hiding inside a futuristic round chair at his aunt’s friend’s house. He was considering a naked woman’s body in a Playboy he stole from his cousin. He was watching Good Times on the shag carpet.
Some people think of memories as drawers you can open and close, packed with personal history. As a file cabinet in your brain full of coded anecdotes. As a room full of televisions playing moments from your past. How ever you imagine your memories, the snapshots are intimate and uniquely yours: our own personal nostalgia or our own personal trauma. But enter Davis’s memory—in this case, a gallery filled with hyper-realistic figurative drawings done with pencil on paper—you’ll recognize the people, you’ll know the objects, and you’ll have your own anecdotes of each one. Each drawing is a near replica of the real-life thing: A Ford F-150 flatbed truck. A Jaws poster. An egg chair. A naked woman dated by her generous amount of public hair. Mama from Good Times.
If Davis’s memory drawings sound like a Google image search of pictures from the ‘70s, it’s because they are. But the meticulous illustrations are anything but impersonal. Let Davis give the tour, and suddenly the drawings become the building blocks of a childhood and a roadmap to an artist’s aesthetic. They are a peek into a growing mind, absorbing the culture around it as one memory becomes the collective unconscious of an era, and eventually the collective nostalgia of the time.
“It’s therapy,” Davis admits. “It may even be art therapy. But that wasn’t a conscious decision. I just started drawing.” The artist began the series while assisting his long-time friend and colleague, artist Rashid Johnson, at a residency in Bruton, a small town in Somerset, England, in April 2017. “Rashid was doing the residency with Hauser and Wirth and I was there to help him make a show for them. So I took advantage of the extra time and space and started drawing. I was spending a lot of time with Rashid's son, Julius, who is 5 years old, and I started to try and recall and tell him about the people, places, and things that I experienced at his age.” Googling images, Davis began looking for anything that sparked a memory from when he was five to eight years old. He scrolled through the tangential icons of his past until, like in a lineup of the subconscious, he recognized a memory. Grandmaster Flash was Davis’s first subject, an icon that formed his connection to early rap music as a teen.
A rapper. A wallpaper pattern. A weed plant. These pictures may trigger a memory of a time but the psychological deep dive only really starts when Davis begins to draw. It’s a practice that he knows well, and the only one that fit the simplicity of the residency’s circumstances. “Everyone talks about slowing things down, getting back to slow art. But drawing has always been slow. You have to concentrate but it also leaves time for your mind to wander.”
Slow art has always been in Davis’s practice, but the medium he works in has shifted dramatically. Before these memory drawings, Davis had not drawn, let alone created representational works, in over ten years. It was then that he stopped working with his collaborative painting partner, Michael Langlois. The duo, under the collective name Davis Langlois, were known for painting hyper-realistic representational portraits on a large scale, often as part of an immersive installation. “We would ask each other who we would want to have a dinner party with and then draw that portrait.” After the two went their separate ways, Davis started to explore more abstract ways of working. A 2015 solo show at Half Gallery showed a series of abstract paintings using canvasses dyed with unexpected materials like ash or wine. He built a waterbed for The Dark Clicks On, a two person show with neon artist Esther Ruiz at New Release gallery in downtown New York City in 2016. Recently, Davis has felt an urge to get back to the simplicity, focus, and catharsis of drawing. This show is one in a series of five showing memory drawings. “The representational work never really left. It just took a backseat while I explored different ways of making paintings and exploring materials for their inherent content. This new project is more than a dinner party like it was with Davis Langlois. It’s a psychology experiment. These drawings have become a way of digging back through my memories, revealing them as I am creating them.”
Take the generic image of the Ford F-150 flatbed truck. It’s the model of the pickup that Davis’s grandfather drove him and his father in to go to work building houses during the summer of 1977. As Davis started drawing it—finding the contrast of the gleaming hubcap with the dark, oversized tire, shading the angles of the jutting, open trunk—he allowed a Proustian flood of visceral nostalgia to take over. “I started having these vivid memories: sitting in between them in the truck, the smells of the leather, of the tools, what was on the dashboard, the rusty nails in the trunk. I remembered thinking, why are the nails rusted? How do you use rusted nails? Before I started drawing I had forgotten there were even nails in the truck at all.”
Not all of the drawings come with direct memories from Davis’s youth. Some are subjects that have built the world that he lives in now. Artists, architecture, and iconic moments that happened between 1975 and 1978 serve as relics in the room of Davis’s memories. One drawing is of an iconic portrait of performance artist Hannah Wilke, taken in 1975 as part of her S.O.S. (Starification Object Series). She looks seductively at the camera with a face covered in pieces of chewing gum made to resemble scars in the shape of small vulvas. “I didn’t know who Hannah Wilke was in 1975, but in 1997 when I worked at the gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago, I had to install a body of her work that dealt with this performance. I remember thinking when I was installing, Oh, this happened when I was five. I was thinking of myself in that time period and how she might have influenced the world I lived in even if not directly. I didn’t realize when I started, but now I see. These drawings are the building blocks of my aesthetic.”
If these tangential drawings create the world for Davis’s memories to exist, the three wooden sculptures in the show give his memory room an ambience of the era. Carved from light pine (the same 2x4 wood used to build houses), the semi-abstract figures are drawn on with the same graphite as the illustrations, donning patterns reminiscent of 1970s wallpaper and interior design. They resemble some of the architecture seen in the illustrations on the wall, namely the smooth, bodily figures by artists Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. About waist-high with anthropomorphic features—a roundish head, a lounging stance—the patterned sculptures blend in as if they were an abstract sculpture in Davis’s aunt’s living room, or perhaps, a child to be seen, not heard. They feel necessary yet subliminal. “My sculptures are the bastard children that came about after Henry, Barbara, Emilio Pucci, and Henrik Thor-Larsen had a crazy night,” Davis explains. “If the drawings are the Ego, the sculptures are the Id.”
Davis has been discussing the project in his own therapy. “My therapist kept bringing up the notion of the little boy.” But the artist didn’t feel there was some deep-seated trauma that was lurking, waiting to be found in these memory drawings. “If it is, it’s trauma with a very lowercase t. The only trauma I can think of at that time was being terrified of the movie Jaws. My trauma, with a capital T—if you can even call it that—came later as a young adult.” He lost his father as teenager, but Davis believes these drawings come more from a place of “warm fuzzies” than “trying to find the darkness.” In therapy, we are expected to mine our memories for buried trauma, but here Davis has the opportunity to indulge fully in his nostalgia while opening it up to everyone.
Davis’s nostalgia isn’t stuck in a better time. It’s not contained to the years between 1975 and 1978, either. Most importantly, it’s not locked up in a mind of file cabinets, TV screens, or padlocked doors. By putting his memories on paper, Davis’s nostalgia becomes part of a breathing ecosystem, inside a gallery constantly influenced by the people and culture around it. “The drawings, in essence, are the things that formed me and my aesthetic sensibility. But everyone has their own relationship with these images.” Here, we feel we are seeing as much a part of Davis’s memory as we are seeing a part of our own. “What it does is take this very personal biography of my life, and open it up by default.”
This essay was written as part of the Art Critic Mentoring Program, a partnership between AICA-USA (US section of International Association of Art Critics) and CUE, which pairs emerging writers with AICA-USA mentors to produce original essays on a specific exhibiting artist. Please visit aicausa.org for more information on AICA-USA, or cueartfoundation.org to learn how to participate in this program. Any quotes are from interviews with the author unless otherwise specified. No part of this essay may be reproduced without prior consent from the author. Lilly Wei is AICA’s Coordinator for the program this season.
Kate Messinger is a writer and content strategist published in New York Magazine, Marie Claire, PAPER and more.
Mentor Sara Reisman is the Artistic Director of the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, whose mission
is focused on art and social justice in New York City. Recently curated exhibitions for the foundation include Mobility and Its Discontents, Between History and the Body, and When Artists Speak Truth, all three presented on The 8th Floor. From 2008 until 2014, Reisman was the director of New York City’s Percent for Art program where she managed more than 100 permanent public art commissions for city funded architectural projects, including artworks by Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Mary Mattingly, Tattfoo Tan, and Ohad Meromi, among others for civic sites like libraries, public schools, correctional facilities, streetscapes and parks. She was the 2011 critic-in-residence at Art Omi, and a 2013 Marica Vilcek Curatorial Fellow, awarded by the Foundation for a Civil Society.