Journey Within a Gallery

James G. Davis tours the world with his diverse art

Berlin. Nova Scotia. Barcelona. Oracle, Arizona.

Circumnavigate the big show at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, James G. Davis: Paintings and Works on Paper, 1988-2004, and you'll spy all these compass points and more. Such works as "Winter Light/Berlin," "Niagara Motel/Denver," "Room 314, Madrid," "A Park Bench in Oslo" and "Red Day on Blueberry Bay" fill the entire first floor of the UAMA for the next month.

Davis has lived for almost 35 years in the high desert of Oracle, at the Rancho Linda Vista artists' colony north of Tucson, and he taught for years at the UA, from 1970 to 1991. But he's spent good chunks of his life elsewhere. He's sojourned for months at a time in über-urban Berlin and along Nova Scotia's remote seacoasts. He has a studio in Colorado and a penchant for Spain. And all of these places make elusive appearances in his art.

His enormous triptych oils on canvas, works on paper and dozens of etchings survey the ambiguous boundary between the geography of place and the geography of the mind. In his work, ambiguous human dramas play out on the cold beaches of Canada's northeast shores, in the hot deserts and angular mountains of the Southwest, and in anonymous motels and hotels from Denver to Barcelona.

"The Motel," an oil on canvas from 1997, is a typically complex composition of intersecting arches and flat planes. It pictures Davis and his wife resting in their room, with a mirror doubling the image of Mary Anne. Hanging above the bed, one of Davis' own paintings of rock and sea is a landmark, mooring him to his own identity even as he wanders.

The sun-drenched "Niagara Motel/Denver" is a quintessential rundown motel, complete with dispiriting lamp hanging on a chain and a wildly out-of-place painting of the namesake falls on the wall. The man inside the room is suggested only by a hand. Outdoors, a woman traveler in a bikini reclines on a classic lawn chair in the glaring western light, a Hopperesque vision of alienation transplanted to the Sun Belt.

Davis' work clearly is not about place per se, not in the way that, say, the work of his old friend, the late Bruce McGrew, was about the landscape around Oracle. His locations are settings for psychic dramas.

"While the places of his paintings are specific (how could they be otherwise?), the work is not about `place,'" Peter Briggs, the former UAMA curator who put this show together, argues in a catalog essay. "They are about a conflation of experience, real and imagined." (His UA contract not renewed, Briggs now holds an endowed curatorship at Texas Tech. Tucson's loss is Lubbock's gain.)

The sexually charged bars of Old Europe and their down-home cousins in the new American West are the edgy settings for a whole Davis series. "Tower Bar," 1997, a sprawling blood-red painting almost 11 feet long, is the very model of that peculiarly American invention, the sports/sex bar. Football regalia festoon the walls, and naked women disport on the black bar. Outside a big window, the western landscape unfurls.

The darker, more-cramped European version turns up in paintings on the order of "Personal, Particular Pursuits," where shanks of ham--dead pig parts--hang above a dimly lit bar in Barcelona. Rendered in a limited palette, with golden light outside, black walls within, the painting suggests confinement, with the trapped people inside chafing against their limited expectations.

The inhabitants of both these bars are strangely still, as all Davis' people are. They seem caught in a moment of time, like butterflies in a case, or bugs in wax, just before impending disaster, when, say, one drunk patron will rise up and smash another, or the guy with the gun will leap toward a naked woman, or the swine carcasses will crash down on a man's head.

A gifted painter and draftsman, Davis layers pungent colors on canvas with brushes wide and small, and then combs through and scratches and twirls the paint. (He pays homage to his tools in "Bone Box," 2003, a work that is more found object than paint--the real-life tools of the painting trade hang in a cloth bag, and the figure nearby is dressed in real-life shirts and jeans spattered with paint.) Moving back and forth from etching to painting, he frequently collages in tiny paper prints onto his large oils, making for interesting surfaces on his big canvases.

Davis' work is steeped in the cultures of the places he's lived, from the cowboys of the West to characters of Wagnerian opera to the art history and folklore of Europe. An avid student of Munch and Goya, he also borrows from early German art. The ambitious "Homage to Nikos Kazantsakis," a 2001 oil on canvas, is a crucifixion triptych, its format and imagery drawn from countless paintings above countless European altars.

At the center is the Greek author Kazantsakis, crucified like Christ and blindfolded. (The late author of The Last Temptation of Christ, Kazantsakis was excommunicated by the Greek Orthodox Church for his work and excoriated by the Roman Catholic.) On the right-hand panel, Davis has painted a treacherous-looking cliff, where Christ is suffering his agony in the garden, courtesy of a collaged drawing glued in.

But other dramas are taking place alongside this one. Below the suffering Jesus in the garden, a pair of urbane diners linger over an elegant restaurant table. Fish flow in an apparent sea around the cross. At left, Davis has painted a nude Mary Anne tentatively treading on a corpse wrapped in a shroud. This painting reminds me of Breugel, who would paint, say, a picture of a calm farmer tilling his fields, while almost unnoticed in the sky a tiny Icarus is falling to his doom. In Davis' artscapes, alternate realities occupy the same painterly plane.

That's how the painter can put characters from Wagnerian opera in an Oracle landscape. In the large nighttime diptych "Siegfried and Brunhilda, The Awakening," 1998, the mythical Germanic couple reposes in the shadow of a mountain whose contours are borrowed from the Catalinas; a single twisted saguaro juts up into the twilit sky. But this being a Davis painting, one reality jostles up against another. Oblivious to the time-traveling opera characters, a pair of modern-day businessmen in suits improbably warm themselves around a fire. Floating above the lovers is a tiny woman, and below them, an old man sits peaceably in a chair. A kindly cow looks on.

Animals loom large in Davis' art. If his gritty urban works look at wayward human culture, his benevolent animals stand in for unmolested nature. "The Evolution Museum," 1997, pairing beasts and people, makes a case for animals being the angels of our better nature. The fine Arizona horse of "El Caballo Blanco," 1998, seems drawn from a fairy tale.

"Winter Light/Berlin," 1994, is a calm and beautiful painting of the Berlin zoo, painted in emeralds and grays. The only human in it is a woman down at the lower right corner. If the woman is off-center, the white polar bear she's looking at is totally centered, literally and figuratively. Presiding regally on a rock in the middle of a pond, the bear is a blank and brilliant white, a simplified creature radiating calm.