December 2006 - January 2007

Arts & Letters

Haranguing the nation

By Justin Clemens

‘Juan Davila’

You can't miss Juan Davila's assault on the human body. In the work [sic.], a one-eyed Grim Reaper, intestines still festering behind the sallow mesh of his ribs, is sodomized onstage by a bald man with a drooling silvery fish for a penis. Bivouac, from 1988, sees Captain Cook, pants sagging above his knees, being kissed on the upper thigh by a small boy. Other figures disport themselves around a small campfire, including one squatting bloke in a white singlet who is either defecating or wiping his arse on the Australian flag. In yet other pictures, bodies are pierced, flayed, quartered, distorted and recomposed in all sorts of appalling ways, accompanied by abject smudges, severed members, dissipated grids, shredded flowers. Anuses gape with fangs or are plugged with eyeballs, deformed sciapods recline in obliterated landscapes, transvestite corpses rot among mutant rats and dogs.

If Davila's got anything at all, it's shock value. Fred Nile's Festival of Light group used to like getting the cops to confiscate these paintings. In 1994, Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador protested to the Chilean government about The Liberator Simón Bolívar, in which the semi-naked eponymous hero sports a pair of boobs and flips us a bird with one painted finger. The Colombian ambassador Jorge Mario Eastman fulminated, "This painting is blasphemous from a historical point of view and pornographic as art." As the critic Robert Rooney noted primly, "Davila is an artist about whom opinions, when they are expressed, tend towards either outright rejection or an inclination to go overboard in his work's favour."

Just like the Surrealists, Davila works with found images, which he subjects to violent cut-ups. You usually can't take in the paintings all at once: they are too large, dispersed, disjunctive. Even in the smaller works, your eye is shoved from one outrage to the next, interrupted by obscenity, then forced towards other discordant forms or colours, which are in turn interrupted. Popular weavings, odd photographs, pages torn from magazines, mirrors, bottles and even wood-saws are worked into the assemblages. Such manifest violence can seduce you into overlooking Davila's extraordinary painterly subtleties, the tiny modulations in surface and tone that support the ruptured whole.

His technical facility and range are astonishing: he not only quotes other paintings, but also quotes quotations - to the point where he can quote himself quoting. Yet this never becomes a glass-bead game; rather, as Roger Benjamin puts it in an outstanding exhibition catalogue from Miegunyah Press, Davila is "haranguing the nation". There's a lot of playing around with personae, too. Just as Fernando Pessoa dissolved himself in pseudonyms such as Alberto Caeiro and Ricardo Reis, and Marcel Duchamp became Rrose Selavy, Davila signs on here as Poto Rivere, Boris and Vargas.

Born in 1946 in Santiago, where he trained as a lawyer, Davila came to Australia following Pinochet's 1973 coup. A 1976 Herald article described him as a "dashing young Chilean painter with the Spanish Conquistador looks", thereby mashing together age, sex, race and colonialism in one heady phrase. These days, Australian reviewers love to comment on the disjunction between Davila's work and his understated personal appearance, as if artists ought to be regulated by a dress code (you'll find references to his "elegant" shirts, pants, hair and manners).

With all this latent-but-patent hostility about, it's no wonder that Davila is seriously interested in psychoanalysis: it provides him with inspiration, subject matter and techniques (quotation, obscenity), without ever dominating his constructions. He often alludes to famous dreams interpreted by Freud, such as the dead son who returns, pleading, "Father, can't you see I'm burning?" Omnivorous, voracious and careless of proprieties, the unconscious fixes on any materials available, usually upon what Freud calls "the day's residues", to express itself in dreams. It doesn't care whether these residues are elite art or low comedy, scary or seductive, just so long as they help it to represent the unrepresentable. Davila's paintbrush takes the same route as this dream-work, his own residues deriving as much from the leftovers of European colonialism and modernism as from the hardcore gay porn of Tom of Finland, the popular Chilean figure Verdejo, and Leunig cartoons ("Geez Des ... you're a bloody nob the way you get it cooked through evenly without overdoing the joey"). He is a divided subject, split between Chile and Australia, Spanish and English, high-end and lowbrow.

Accompanying the theoretical proclivities are some straightforward political motivations. At the MCA in Sydney, where a Davila retrospective was shown from September to November, this was underlined in the placement of works: Davila's early Chilean paintings (from the mid '70s) were hung in the same room as his Woomera sequence (from the early 2000s). The link is obvious: from Pinochet's torturers to Howard's torturers, from silenced and mutilated victims to silenced and mutilated victims. Only a few years ago, the über-glossy Wallpaper* magazine reported Woomera townspeople speaking of "that concentration camp", so it seems eminently reasonable for Davila to "propose an enquiry into the psychological forces that support and resist this horror, so reminiscent of that in Chile under the dictatorship".

If the show picks up on Davila's long-term commitments, it is substantial enough to reveal the ruptures as well. Like many great artists, he forged a signature style, then dismantled it. It's tempting to identify four loose periods in his development: the early work of the '70s; the "classic" work of the '80s and early '90s, in which high-art citations are deployed to explicit pornographic and political effect; a period in the '90s when he starts to mix his classic techniques with new colours, motifs and allusions; and, in his current incarnation, the painter of restrained beauty. This is perhaps the most surprising Davila of all, and it is one that has divided long-term fans. Obscenity is one thing, but beauty is quite another - all the more so when the beauty is freighted, if almost indiscernibly, with sexual and political anxieties.

If, in his high-art moments, Davila regularly quoted Duchamp, Lichtenstein and Rauschenberg, not to mention sundry Latin American and Australian modernists, his allusions are now predominantly to the great nineteenth-century French realists: to Courbet, Caillebotte and Manet. Take Two Women on the Banks of the Yarra, Woman with a Parrot or the portraits titled The Origin of the World after a notorious Courbet painting (possibly the first "split beaver" daub in art history). Davila believes that realism is the ‘repressed' of contemporary art, that it deals with anxieties no one wants to know about through subtly rendering plausible near-impossible scenes.

Some artists exhaust themselves in shock; these recent paintings suggest that Davila's obvious transgressions were always dedicated to unleashing something more profound. For him, art doesn't just offer imaginary or symbolic resolutions to real problems, but is itself a practice of freedom, even if that freedom can look pretty weird or unpleasant from the outside. Davila celebrates, in the words of Alain Badiou and Barbara Cassin, "the exhilarating and violent form of thought that is painting".

The exhibition Juan Davila is on display at the NGV International, Melbourne, until 4 February 2007.

Justin Clemens

Justin Clemens writes about contemporary Australian art and poetry. He teaches at the University of Melbourne.

Cover: December 2006 - January 2007
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