Tuesday, 12 December 2006

Juan Davila is revisited in the December-January issue of The Monthly. Written by academic Justin Clemens, the article runs through the latest developments of a career that has spanned three decades and brought the artist more than his fair share of notoriety.

You can't miss Juan Davila's assault on the 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.

Here is the painting he writes of:

[sic.], 1988 by Juan Davila
I visited the Museum of Contemporary Art to see the retrospective Clemens writes about and enjoyed myself hugely. Davila's polemical fireworks are a joy to behold, regardless of your own personal take on the issues he addresses. What struck me most, however, weren't the pyrotechnics of his work from the eighties and nineties, but the more recent paintings. Clemens also notices what he calls "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 indiscernably, with sexual and political anxieties.


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".

But Davila's recent work is not violent. It may be exhilarating for some. For me it is. It is introspective and no less vigorous for being less fraught with political baggage than the paintings which have made him justly famous. I feel that he is now reassessing his roots, and revisiting the late-nineteenth-century realist painters who have survived, such as Courbet.

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