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Retrospective at Etherton 

Last chance to see 40 years’ worth of work of the late, great James G. Davis

click to enlarge “Tower Bar” by James G. Davis, ​1997, oil on canvas. © Estate of James G. Davis/Courtesy Etherton Gallery

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“Tower Bar” by James G. Davis, ​1997, oil on canvas. © Estate of James G. Davis/Courtesy Etherton Gallery

The sprawling painting "Tower Bar," its 11-foot expanse painted blood red, is as big and as complicated as a Renaissance painting.

Created by the late James G. Davis in 1997, when he was 66 years old and at the height of his powers, this monumental narrative work is a highlight of Etherton's Davis retrospective, a comprehensive collection of 44 works, both paintings and prints, spanning four decades. The exhibition is aptly called Down at the Tower Bar.

Like an Hieronymus Bosch, Davis fills his "Tower Bar" canvas with little vignettes that illustrate human folly, everything from lust to greed to desperation. The Tower is a girlie bar, and its denizens are naked women and the men who ogle them.

The women, painted a bloodless gray, coolly go about their business. One reclines listlessly on a stage and is doing a pole dance, grinding her groin against a metal tube. A TV blares, ignored, and the world-weary men sit at their tables, drinking their beers, watching. These are working guys, a truck driver, a farmer in a cap and overalls.

The scene is curiously static, like much of Davis's work, as though everyone is paralyzed, pinned in place, destined to engage in the same actions from here to eternity. But unlike in Bosch's "The Last Judgment" and other religious paintings of old, there are no haloed saints or shimmering angels coming to redeem these sinners.

Still, Davis, who died last year, makes no judgments in this edgy work; he honors these down-and-outers by memorializing them in paint. And as he often does in his paintings, he injects healing glimpses of nature. Two pleasant dogs stand companionably in the bar, and through a window we can see rolling green hills under a big sky. A faint sign on the barroom wall, "Go Big Red" (slogan of the University of Nebraska), signals that we are in the heartland.

Davis himself came from the heartlands. Born in Missouri in 1931, he studied art at Wichita State University in Kansas. He landed at the University of Arizona in 1970, and taught there for 21 years, until 1991. But his art took him all over the world.

He painted on the Nova Scotia seacoast and in the Colorado mountains and in Rancho Linda Vista, the Arizona artists' colony he helped found in Oracle. He frequented Berlin, Madrid and Barcelona, making dark works set in European boîtes, counterparts to the Tower Bar. His wanderings in Spanish alleys and into the bull ring produced etchings of Old World balconies and bullfights. "Room #314," Madrid, a colored lithograph from 2003, resonates with the classic American lodgings evoked in "Niagara Motel," an etching made in 1988, and "The Motel," an oil on canvas from 1997.

Though he never became a painter of nature, he reveled in the American West, particularly the landscape around his home at Rancho Linda Vista. The ridgeline of the Catalina mountains that he could see from his front door often made its way into his works. "Diorama Lion," an homage to Arizona, features a mountain lion in a pool of yellow light and a bighorn sheep against a rich blue sky; off in the distance is that familiar expanse of the Catalinas.

Davis's great love was his wife Mary Anne Davis, whom he met in college in the 1950s and whose portrait he painted again and again over the next 50 years. He had so many Mary Anne paintings that he staged an exhibition devoted to them in the Rancho Linda Vista gallery five years ago. ("Scenes from a Marriage," https://www.tucsonweekly.com/tucson/scenes-from-a-marriage/Content?oid=3431818)

Sometimes, the Mary Anne paintings were erotic evocations of the woman he loved. Other times he simply used her as a model, and made her a character as cool the inaccessible figures at the Tower Bar. Etherton is showing a Mary Anne work that bridges the gap between the cool and the hot.

"Nude Descending Staircase," a spectacular litho from 1998, is gorgeous in bright yellow, red and black. Once of the best-known of Davis's works, it's a play on Duchamps' famous 1912 black and white of the same name.

A beautiful Mary Anne, nude and serene, has begun her journey down the staircase, her shadows cast a brilliant yellow wall behind her. A friendly white car is stretched out nearby. (Animals often inhabit Davis's works, either in the background or at center stage.) Mary Anne glances at the artist mid-step but she keeps on going, lifting her right foot lifted toward the first step. There's no reason to stop: below her a glorious red carpet awaits. And on that carpet Davis has painted a series of human figures: a bevy of Mary Annes.

The exhibition also includes works by two talented painters: Davis's son, Turner Davis of Phoenix, and Michael Chittock of Tucson.

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