Scenes From a Marriage

Five decades of James G. Davis' paintings of his wife are on display at Oracle's Rancho Linda Vista

James G. Davis first painted Mary Anne Davis 50 years ago, when she was a girl of 20.

In that early painting, she's in classic model pose. She sits on a couch amid the disorder of Davis' grad-student studio, with sketches and random objects crowded in behind her. But there's no mistaking the painting's central focus, or the object of the painter's rapt attention: the nude young woman front and center.

Her skin is so white, it glows, and her thick brown hair cascades down around her breasts. Her eyes gleam in an unearthly blue-green.

Davis would paint Mary Anne over and over again over the next five decades, looking at her with a "loving and complicated gaze," says Turner Davis, their only child and a painter himself.

Over the years, Davis painted Mary Anne with the delight of the lover, with the fondness of the husband and, occasionally, with the cool detachment of the artist. After 50 years, he accumulated enough works for an exhibition solely of paintings of his wife.

Mary Anne Paintings, at the Rancho Linda Vista Gallery, consists of 19 large oil paintings and 10 small oil sketches. A tribute to their long marriage, the unusual show is on view for just a few more days at RLV, the artists' colony where they have lived for 42 years.

"He's used me as a model for a long time," Mary Anne Davis told me last week when I visited the ranch gallery and then stopped by to see the couple at their house nearby. "Some paintings I sat for; some he just painted (from memory)."

Davis said he has never before exhibited the Mary Anne Paintings as a group, and he wants them to stay together "as a unit. Nothing is for sale."

"I did the little paintings for her birthday," he added.

Ten of these small birthday works are lined up together. One of the loveliest (nearly all of the paintings in the show are simply called "Mary Anne") has her sleeping on her side, her back to the viewer, her now-gray hair tumbling down her back. An open window looks out onto a view of the Catalinas. (And this being a Davis painting, a mysterious monkey sits on a chair.)

The Davises met a half-century ago at Wichita State University, when Mary Anne was an art student, and James was working toward his MFA. Before arriving at the UA in 1970, James taught at Wichita, then at the University of Missouri. He was a UA professor of art for 21 years before retiring in 1991 to devote himself to painting. (Mary Anne taught art at San Manuel High School for 27 years.)

Now in his early 80s and in frail health, Davis has exhibited widely. He had two major retrospectives in Tucson, one at the University of Arizona Museum of Art in 2004 and 2005 ("Journey Within a Gallery," Dec. 30, 2004), and the other at the Tucson Museum of Art, in 1988. But he's also shown elsewhere in the U.S. and in Europe, particularly in Berlin, where he spent large chunks of time.

Davis' style has always been distinctive. He typically makes large paintings, vigorously brushed, but he contours his figures with strong, sharp-edged lines. Most of his works suggest an elusive narrative: exotic animals float in and out of the picture plane; women are glimpsed sideways in mirrors; landscapes shift into streets.

He creates a palpable sense of place, evoking bars in Berlin and bodegas in Barcelona, while occasionally interrupting these cool urban scenes with glimpses of the Sonoran Desert. He often replicated the view of the Catalinas that looms over Oracle and the ranch.

From their house, "We can see the ski slope," Mary Anne said, gesturing toward the north face of Mount Lemmon from their front door.

The Davises' old adobe is crowded with art, and an odd collection of real animals stuffed and preserved by a taxidermist—a vulture, a falcon, a duck. Nearly all of them have made their way into Davis' art.

"When Jim was teaching at University of Missouri, a zoologist was cleaning out stuffed animals and wondered if anyone in the art department wanted them," Mary Anne recounted. "Jim said, 'Yes, I want them.' He painted all of them to bring them back to life."

Animals "absolutely played a big part in my art," Davis agreed.

In the current show, three large paintings of Mary Anne as a hunter are meant to be an indictment of the slaughter of animals, he said. In one, nicely painted in the whites and grays of the Arctic north, Mary Anne sits alongside a fallen polar bear. In another, she has felled a lion. In a third, an anteater from Davis' collection is her prey. But the animals have triumphed over death, the artist said, and despite their wounds, their eyes still glow with life.

Mary Anne, he said, is "exactly the opposite of a hunter."

As the hunter paintings demonstrate, not all of the Mary Anne works are personal. "Berlin Blumen (Berlin Flowers)" is a quintessentially cool Davis painting. Mary Anne is in it, but she seems anonymous, like one of the other models Davis has used over the years. Painted in the early '90s, it pictures her in middle age. Her hair is still lush, but steel gray and cut short. Seen in profile, her face is severe, and her body is taut—rigid, even. She stands in the yellow light of nighttime, dressed in a black bra and underpants, underscoring that Weimar decadence that seems to permeate our ideas of Berlin.

But she holds a bouquet of white flowers in the crook of one arm, and a cascade of blooms tumbles down behind her. At upper right, a tiny inset painting pictures the hills of Oracle, a reminder of home.

Mostly, the Mary Anne Paintings are affectionate, deeply personal portraits; taken together, they're scenes from a marriage. The early paintings—of the provocative young beauty lying fully clothed on a couch, of a young nude wrapped in a translucent cloth, of the disheveled lover with eyes half-closed in desire—were clearly made by a young man in the throes of heart-stopping erotic love.

The paintings move on through time, and the ecstatic love mellows into something steadier. That young woman in love turns into a serene 30-something mother with her hair neatly pinned up; she's pictured in a domestic space that's replaced the earlier disorder of the studio and its trysts. (But Davis is still Davis—the baby in the painting is just a head, and it's set on a circle of real lace.)

Later, there's the sophisticated woman in an upswept hairdo striding down a European street, and later still, there's the contented woman in late middle age. In one of the last portraits, Mary Anne is seated, her gray sun dress matching her gray hair. She seems oblivious to the gaze of her painter husband. Instead, she's lost in thought, a self-possessed figure confident in herself and secure in the abiding love of a long marriage.