In The Wind
Mailbags from the very edge.
A detail from Imbi Davidson's 2009 work Incognita. Source: Supplied
THE word spread slowly, insistently, during the height of the build-up season in 2009, when Northern Territory gallerist Dallas Gold staged the first solo show for a young, unknown Darwin artist with a strong expressionist lean to her work.
In those humid weeks, with dark storm clouds reaching skywards and maddened fruit-doves crying out their mating calls, almost anything can appear feasible. And so the first reports of the suite of paintings by Imbi Davidson on view at Raft Artspace - vast, rich-hued paintings, made on canvas from old mail bags - seemed to fit perfectly with the temper of the time.
The paintings were lush, exorbitant and unconstrained. Deep veils of black and Prussian blue, scored with lines and stencil-marks, with symbols and letters cut almost through the fabric: this was an art unlike anything seen in the northern capital, yet it was instantly recognisable as the product of the tropics and their shimmering, intensifying light.
Lost at Sea, the set of mail bag canvases was titled: the images evoked the experiences of mariners, sailing on turbulent oceans towards the southern continent, but they were also imbued with the hazy textures of monsoonal skies.
The first collector to see the works on the gallery walls snapped up the entire show.
Gold moved his Raft Artspace from Darwin to Alice Springs mid-way through 2010 knowing he had fulfilled his desire to uncover a great original among the ranks of non-indigenous artists active in the north.
"Each one of those works was like a night ocean journey in itself," he says. "Imbi's canvases take you into a strange space, you go on a voyage of your own deep into the paint."
Just past 30, Davidson came north more than a decade ago and spent some years living on a Yolngu clan homeland outside remote Ramingining, on the margins of the Arafura swamp. She engaged in protracted university art studies while based in Darwin, but her real teacher was the landscape: it bore in on her, and shaped her. Her environs seem reflected in every canvas she makes.
After her 2009 Raft show, Davidson embarked on a year of travel: India, Canada. She produced a stream of distinctive works. There were drawings based on botanical sketches, turbulent skyscapes, hectic panoramic views, thick with lines, arcs and hatchings. They had the feel of views from high in the air and mingled, in novel relationships, blues, whites, deep reds and burnt shades of earth.
Pieces from this series, Tar and Feather, go on view in May at the new Chan Building gallery in central Darwin, as part of a three-artist show. That exhibition will also mark a hinge-point in Davidson's life. For, after so long living in the Territory, and so long studying the Top End's landscapes and their effects on the imagination, her northern phase is done. In a recent entry in her episodic website diary, she reflected on the effect of constant exposure to the landscape. "Even in its gritty bloodthirsty intensity," she wrote, "there is on this edge of the world a glory, a splendour and untamed harshness."
In person, Davidson is contained, almost self-effacing.
Unlike most university-trained contemporary artists, she has no easy words to accompany her paintings. Works more expressive of an individual tilt on the world are hard to imagine.
In discussion, she sets out the elements of ordeal and struggle that hold centre stage in her art-making. She speaks of the importance of wounds and scarification-marks in the Aboriginal world she came to know in Arnhem Land. Scars, and healing, and recovery from the blows of life: these are the ideas uppermost in her thoughts.
Art in the north involves battle, survival and a resultant insight: "I see here a sharpness in the art, an edginess: being able to speak the language of the bush is essential, feeling the bones of the country, seeing them and tracing them."
And the artist in such country has a specific task: to find a means of conveying ideas and impressions that lie beyond easy understanding and the simple reference frames of our experience.
"There are things in artworks that provoke thought, but that we don't have words for," she says. "Isn't that our part, as artists, to make people feel things they didn't know they felt, and show how we can be in that place of not understanding, and that can be a good place to be?"
This is unsteady ground, and Davidson sees herself clearly at the start of a path, only grazing the surface of the sensory world. "Much in art today lacks that uncertain element," she argues.
In the north, though, she has been able to find ambiguities and uncertainties aplenty: a hazy frontier zone where Western authority over the landscape is not yet established, where Aboriginal culture, with all its rules and codes, is still palpable, where the past and its wounds are present in the wartime shards and relics strewn along Darwin harbour and the shore.
Art, in such places, must proceed by jumps and intuitions: the artist who wants to reach beyond mere tropical sheen and beauty must gaze inwards, and find a deeper rhyme with the murk and depth of the hidden world.
This is a doctrine of inspiration, if it is a doctrine at all. Yet craft and skill, as much as loose improvising, lie at the core of Davidson's work. Expressionism of the highest order is born only from precise technique: you need to master the codes before you can break them. The colour washes Davidson employs look back to Nolde and Matisse, just as much as they summon up the responsiveness to place of a Drysdale or Fairweather in full flight.
Davidson's way of looking, which stems from close attention to country, also highlights her belief in the knowability of the landscape of the north: a sense that stems from her long immersion in the indigenous realm.
The country may be at first unfamiliar, but it is not foreign.
"I really believe we share the same country, Aboriginal people and us, the same landscape. Indigenous people are inspired by us, and we by them, there's no strong divide any more up here. Aboriginal work has its roots here, in some deep past trajectory. My work has its roots here, and now."
There are other artists working in the north, and in remote Australia, who respond to their surrounds in this kind of instinctual fashion, and seek to transcribe their feelings and reactions through their art: indeed, there would be little point to working in such environs while remaining wholly impervious to their effects.
Davidson, though, stands apart in her aim of self-removal, which may account for the strange authority, the air of the inevitable that her best work holds. It is an austere procedure she adopts.
"I don't just record things and impose upon them," she says.
"I try to give a voice to them. The landscape, the tropical world, it's all a part of a whole. I try to make myself into a reciprocal of the country."
It's time to reflect on art.
Arts/Craft Photo Project 2010
Charles Darwin University is not the sort of place I would expect to find an artist. Art and academia seem as distant from each other as Antarctica and aardvarks. Even in the dictionary they are held apart by words like ‘arrogance’ and ‘archaic’. After locating a car park I could afford somewhere among the mangroves of Rapid Creek, I make my way to Orange 11 Room 1.24a. The universities system of navigation has been designed by a Phd student studying abstract mathematics and its relationship to mental stability in the visiting public. I pass numerous zombie-like creatures searching for colours and numbers that have no obvious relationship to any location system. An elderly woman sits crying in the courtyard between ‘red’ and ‘blue’. She is whispering the word ‘green’ over and over to herself in a desperate and distance voice. Best not to interfere, I think, for fear of shifting the bell curve.
‘How can art exist here?’ I ask myself? How can freedom of expression and creativity coincide with such formality and rigor? I hope I am about to find out as I stumble upon room 1.24a. In the continuing effort to remain abstruse, there is no indication as to the contents bar a picture of a regal looking woman tacked precariously to the door. I look either way into the prison-like corridor for a sign of life. My IQ diminishes with every breathe. A door slams behind me and I am alone; a solitary spaceman on a distant, hostile planet. Desperation mixed with a modicum of courage and anticipation entice me to open the door. On entering, I am immediately transformed into a different world; the diffused light from a distant window engulfs me and a soft, alluring voice, the Loralie of the open seas, becons me to enter. If I were dead, and there is no evidence to the contrary, I might well have arrived in Heaven and now being irretrievably drawn to the light at the end of the tunnel.
Signs of the creative process are everywhere. Abstractions splashed across the walls, fragments of thoughts transposed into something concrete, impressions of life, the ‘tools of trade’ for the artists, chaos among order, a disordered refuge among the logic of supposition. I have found my art and my artist. Home at last.
Imbi appears from the light as my eyes adjust to the imagery. A young woman (I guess at 30) with a strong confidence in her manner and voice. She sweeps some papers from a chair and offers me a seat. The room is dimly lit. All is still but everything moves. Flash-backs of my father walking me through musky museums surface in my frontal lobe. Creatures on the walls follow my every move. There is order here but it is well disguised. All things connected but the threads are loose and convoluted.
‘I work here and at home’ she says as we enter into conversation. 'I can’t use oils here. The smell gets into the air-conditioning and …..’ A twist on the ‘academia stifling art’ theme, I think. We launch into a discussion of the anomalies between her work and her chosen surroundings as though it is necessary to clear the air before any further discussion can ensue.
‘I’m a hypocrite, really,’ she admits embarrassingly, ‘but it provides me with the means to do what I want to do and be what I want to be – an artist. Art helps me to make sense of the world’.
Imbi explains the connection between her art and her place of work. She is part way onto a Masters Degree, which provides her with space, a meager stipend and a schedule, which she admits is ‘not one of her things’. Her undisciplined nature is somewhat evident in her work. ‘Scratchy’ she calls it. In return, the university expects a ‘plan’, purpose, research and a submission to the critical review of her peers and mentors; a process which she finds uncomfortable, to say the least.
She, like many of the artists I have spoken to, has no ‘vision’ of what will appear on her canvas. Her actions are as a result of some convoluted thought processes guided by her memories, feelings, culture, observations and thoughts about the world around her. It’s her way of finding answers to indescribable questions. Beauty is not a criteria for her work, she emphasizes, although I find beauty inherent in what she does. There is a painting of what appears to be a seascape above her head that flows and floats like a cloud, tempering the mood and answering a question I have not yet resolved or even asked.
‘Some days I just paint in blue’ she adds. I’m conscious that she might be reading my mind. ‘Its instinctive’ but we agree that this may not be the case. The learning process can be subtle and the results of that learning may manifest in different ways; like the sense of painting instinctively.
Her love of her children, plants and gardening is strongly expressed. She is experimenting with plant representation using a technique that is best described as brutal. Taking a hammer to a leaf seems a bit extreme but the results are quite fascinating. Imbi described the process but I become more interested in the results. It must show. The excitement in her voice wanes and her explanation becomes disjointed. Maybe the camera is distracting. But I sense there is more to it than that. It might well be that the process is not clearly defined or it may even be insignificant. The process is as seemingly disjointed as the mental processes she engages while painting. As I have discovered in many others, creativity has no formula, no prescription. As Imbi says,’ its what I am’. And once again, I am intrigued by the relationship between art and academia. How can one person or even a group of people, with any sort of intent, make a critical judgement on the creativity of another person. I know there are many answers to that question and I am yet to find them. My search continues.
‘Let’s go to the Gallery. There are some things you might be interested in’.
The Gallery is where Imbi has recently ‘run the gauntlet’ of her assessors. This inquisition is to justify her continuation with her Masters Degree. She has my vote.
Ansel Adams said ‘There is always two people in a photograph: the photographer and the viewer’. The same certainly holds true for paintings as well. Imbi’s art encloses the space around me like a soft blanket. It is unmistakably her work. Even after such a short time I would recognise her work anywhere. This work is truly ‘her’. It is as though she is dismantling instead of constructing; creating her images by rummaging through a complexity of thoughts and ideas with a brush in her hand. As a photographer I am reminded of the concept of 'looking behind'; when looking for the image look behind to see what is revealed. Imbi is 'looking behind' in that same sense. There are no distinguishable figures or recognizable images here but its alive with shape, form, colour and texture. As I move around the images hanging before me I am conscious of three things: Imbi is talking non-stop about her work in that unsure, disjointed uncertain manner that is evident in her painting, I am absorbed in the presence of it all, and the art has become the connection, the link, the interface between the two people Adams refers to.
So this is what art is all about.
My task is over. I have found what I came looking for. I am one step closer to finding the answer to all things. In her search to find her own answers, Imbi has provided me with my own.