( journalist, art critic, independent curator )


TM Davy

Marie Maertens: How do you start a painting?

TM Davy: It is hard to say exactly.  The process always seems to be shifting in subtle and mysterious ways, which I am glad for. I can say that a work always seems to start with some existent relationship in my life, an engagement or connection to a real person or moment or thing.  A love of some sort. Sometimes, something very personal will sit in my mind as an image, but it will also seem to bridge or find intimate tension against broader histories or politics or ideas.  I love that.  There are times when a painting will appear nearly fully formed in my head, like some archetype of memory and connection. But that glimpse of composition only offers itself long enough to start, so I'll ask the person to sit for me. Having the "subject" sit in my studio helps to not only articulate forms, but to explore and develop the underlying relationship, both in paint and reality. Something always deepens through the new time spent. Sometimes I will simply begin from life, nothing preconceived at all but the subject. I'll make sketches and false starts till something interesting emerges. Sometimes a work is finished later from the influence of memory or feeling or exploration of light and form. Sometimes photographs are taken and looked at somewhere along the way. At the end of the day, I keep my process open to complexity and a magic-like selection of various truths.  "John (portrait of a young artist)", for example, was done while he was drawing the plants in my studio. I started while he was totally immersed and not really posing, and shifted my position to follow the intensity of his looking.  I love the way his energy feels built into the work.  Every painting for me is a sort of alchemy of means, a bridging of subjective and objective response in sometimes odd mixtures. 

In the Summer Camp’s exhibition, you represented several times this John. Who is he?

Indeed, John is my cousin, so I've known him his whole life. His parents asked me to be his godfather when I was a teenager. It turned out that I was maybe a poor choice as church goes, but it bonded us on some other level. John already lives in NY and is starting art school this year. He is a great young artist. I've painted him a few times over the years, and it is has been amazing to watch him become who he is. He has a sort of fierce independence and sensitive acuteness that is fascinating and wonderful. There were times when he sat for me that he was awesomely present. We'd talk about music or life, and he would have the sort of strong and bold opinions that made me realize why some teenagers seem to push culture forward. Other times he would drift off in that teenagery way where I'd wonder what he was thinking, but wouldn't ask.

Why do you focus so much about teenagers?

There is something interesting about the act of painting any person; trying to construct a sort of permanent representation of an always impermanent state. One “is” but one is also “becoming”. Painting a portrait is never really a single moment, and that is interesting to me because it can allow for this transience to play out. Tensions and shifts between being and time can be considered and layered. There is a well known  Japanese aesthetic philosophy called wabi-sabi which “nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.” To paint someone that I “know” and love, to look at them in the eyes sometimes for hours at a time, is often a process that alternately embraces and rejects this idea. I think there is immense beauty in every age. But the adolescent is, in a way, the heightened human embodiment of transience. There is a specific strangeness to the beauty of “being” there that is so wildly enmeshed and confused with the process of “becoming”. The physical features themselves hold tensions of change. A male teenager’s face, for example, might flicker between boyhood and manhood, holding a sort of child's effeminate softness in one place and a defiant masculinity in another. The self-awareness and internal struggle that exists beneath these appearances is also new and heightened. On some level, I think teenagers tend to be somewhat uncomfortable and to make people somewhat uncomfortable. That energy is interesting to me. Culture does seem to shift more radically and creatively when it is sought or disdained by youth. Certainly, in the broad and commercialized world, the direction of this energy isn't always clear or truly radical. But that tension between transience and definition seems important to me.

On the other hand, the way you paint is very classic. Why do you choose mainly the oil?

Oil paint is also part of the alchemy. It is malleable and complex in ways that stay surprising and responsive. One can be quick with it and put down immediate responses to color, shape, and light. It can slip easily between hard and soft, form and atmosphere, complex feeling and pronounced depiction. I like the experience and shifts between immediate responses and gestures, and areas where time seems to slow. Oil lets you slow down and explore in strange ways. There always comes a point when I am painting a face and the painted face takes on a sort of uncanny life. Every subtle push or stroke shifts the expression and engagement, and it becomes more like some unspoken conversation than anything technical. Even the textures and gloss and layers of it can seem to be as much an afterlife as a picture. 

Which are your influences?

I'm very interested in art as a history, and the ways in which art and aesthetics seem to reflect philosophies and times, so my influences are varied and long. Some are probably obvious, like Caravaggio or Velázquez or Mapplethorpe. I also think a lot about modern/contemporary Romantic Conceptualism, like Felix Gonzalez-Torres or Warhol's films. I love the long line that seems to drift between "great art" and "unintentional camp".  Susan Sontag suggested it starts at Georges de la Tour, but I'm not so sure. I do love Georges de la Tour. I also love Fantin Latour and New Order's use his "A Basket of Roses" for one of my favorite albums,  "Power, Corruption, and Lies". I am interested in the space and conversation that exists between Collier Schorr and Andrew Wyeth. I am influenced by Walt Whitman and the America he envisioned where everyone and no one is illuminated by a sacred gold colored light. The list goes on and on. Larry Clark, all of my friends in NY… I love drawing connections to other times, but do feel I'm in the right one. 

Interview realized July the 18th, 2012.

TM Davy (b.1980), lives and work in NYC.