For more than three decades, Juan Davila – Chilean-born, but based in Australia since 1974 – has been, in the words of Australian art historian Roger Benjamin, ‘haranguing the nation’ with his pictures of symbolically convoluted men, women and everything in between being ravaged, pleasured, sodomized and mutated. Long a critic of the Modernist project which, he believes, ‘cut painting’s narrative’, Davila makes figurative paintings that evoke emotional uncertainties while addressing the politics of the day. Recently, he’s turned his attention to the tradition of landscape painting, and to portraits of women.
In the excellent catalogue accompanying ‘The Moral Meaning of Wilderness’, Davila’s exhibition of 17 large oil paintings, Dr Kate Briggs writes of a shift that occurred around 2003 when Davila set out to counter what he felt to be the subjugation of the woman in Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World, 1866) by painting portraits of whole-bodied and identifiable women. In so doing, Davila, a follower of psychoanalytic theory, found potential for exploring feminine jouissance – the term Jacques Lacan used to discuss sexuality and desire.
Two Women on the Banks of the Yarra (2003) depicts two naked women reclining – their legs splayed – on the shores of the river that splits Melbourne. The scene is an inversion of Courbet’s painting: we cannot see their genitalia. Their gaze is directed elsewhere, away from us, and away from the two male portraits (one a bare-chested Aboriginal man brandishing a spear, the other a white boy sitting with a book closed on his lap) pasted to the canvas above the women, away from the will-o’-the-wisp whirlwind shape that hovers to one side, and away from Davila, the objectifying painter.
In the past, Davila’s paintings have not been easy to look at. They have tested our tolerance for the absurd and the profane, and pushed us to question our moral bearings on civil and political issues. The landscape paintings made in the last five years – some realist, painted in the parks and bushland around Melbourne, others abstract dreamscapes – mark a visual shift in Davila’s practice. While sharing the same theoretical concerns as the portraits in exploring the parameters of jouissance (in nature this relates to a space devoid of moral, nationalistic or sublime projections), they differ notably in style. Many are shimmering, beautiful and full of light – though, perhaps predictably, they are not joyful.
Take the large oil painting 761 Wattletree Road (2008). It reveals a creature flanked by gum trees and with, in the words of W.B. Yeats in his 1920 poem ‘The Second Coming’, ‘a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun’. This manticore – which has the hands of a man, the body of a red spotted lion and a face that resembles the artist himself – could be the vision that so troubled Yeats.
Nature as envisioned by Davila – enigmatic, potentially traumatic, uncontrollable and unedited – is not a sublime place with a moral meaning. Australia: Nuclear Waste Dumping Ground (2007), for example, is a painting of a seemingly insignificant view. A dirt track littered with gum tree leaves flanks a hazy body of water; it is rendered quickly and confidently in pastel tones with sparse, broad brushstrokes. Only the title connects this scene to a contemporary concern – meaning comes not from nature but is ascribed by the artist. The manticore keeps watch over this and a cluster of other plein air paintings. Towards the back of the gallery hangs a series of abstracted landscapes with titles prefaced with ‘After’, insinuating that a rupture of sorts has occurred. The manticore presence now feels like a sign that things are falling apart, that the centre, in Australia at least, cannot hold.
One extraordinary painting, Wilderness (2010), further hints at this conclusion. Part realist, part abstract, it shows bulbous, fluid, petri dish forms painted in iridescent colours. It is familiar (an oil slick or algae bloom would look similar) but unnerving. Here is the landscape we deserve, Davila suggests, because we are failing to imagine how our economies are traumatizing the wilderness. Davila’s dreamscapes are now a legitimate vision of what’s to come.