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Toward The Abyss: Ian Davis at Kemper at the Crossroads

Auditorium, 2006; acrylic on canvas, 55 1/8 x 60 1/4, private collection
Auditorium, 2006; acrylic on canvas, 55 1/8 x 60 1/4, private collection
Kemper Museum

Neither entirely dystopian nor fully utopian, Ian Davis creates worlds where something oppressive and threatening remains slightly beyond the parameters of the canvas, a canvas where men seem to await a catastrophe. With the precision of a magazine illustrator and the black humor of a great satirist, Davis’ canvases all depict a world of extreme disquiet where anonymous (white) men observe, tally, and witness spectacles rendered enigmatic by their formality and disturbing by their bleakness.

In pieces such as Physicians (2008), a group of men in white lab coats stare at a piece of machinery which has been placed on a pedestal like a grand Greek statue in a museum. Large windows break up a red brick wall behind them as nude trees hang ominously in the background, an orange string or cord dangling lifelessly from a few of the windowpanes. In another of his paintings, Auditorium (2007), white men in suits sit in the round while a podium, in the middle, awaits a speaker. Wires and microphones fill the place of people and in this instance, as in his other pieces, technology is rendered dominant and oddly (if appropriately) indifferent to the spectacle before it. In his painting In Your Tower (2009), men in suits and lab coats point and file into a tower in the middle of a desert, a test about to or having commenced where the lack of movement in the painting only highlights the tension in the scene. Monumentality is contrasted with formality in Davis’ work, nightmares made poignant and visible by Davis’ sure hand and absolute focus. Environmental degradation, technological predation, and mankind’s love affair with spectacle suggest Debord via Ballard: the present/future is clear to see yet untenable in Davis work, paintings where the space stretches beyond the canvas and yet remains absolutely closed.

In an era of global change (political, economic, environmental), Ian Davis’ work is frightening for its prescience and beautiful for its surgeon’s clarity. This wonderful exhibition is on display at Kemper at the Crossroads (33 W. 19th Street, Kansas City, Missouri) to June 19, 2010.


  • Drew Denny - National Canoeing Examiner 5 years ago

    We were just at the Kemper Museum today for lunch. I guess we will have to plan another trip. Great article and congratulations on the feature in the newsletter. I have subscribed. Come check out my articles when you get a chance. Have a great day.