Emotive Abstract Forms

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The Emotive Abstract Forms of Haydn Llewellyn Davies

In an era dominated by video and digital art, when the meaning of visual culture is formed largely through political, social and cultural critique, and when the cult of the young artist seems to reign supreme, Haydn Llewellyn Davies's work stands out as the product of a mature creative mind. He is committed to a tradition threaded through modern art for over a century: a formal interrogation of the tenets of abstraction.

Davies demonstrates an on-going dedication to examining two of the basic principles of three-dimensional art: form and space. In the earliest example, the playful and lithe forms of Homage (1974) became his first large-scale commission when they were rendered in laminated red cedar for the Lambton College of Arts and Technology in Sarnia. The more rectilinear and spare elements of Cromlech (1976) were executed in steel for the Galleria Nazionale d'arte Moderne et Contemporenea in Rome. Further large-scale commissions arose for Space Composition for Eva (1977), now at the Art Gallery of Cambridge, Space Composition, Red (1978), installed at the Government of Ontario offices in Windsor and Harbourfront (1980), since relocated to its permanent home at the Art Gallery of Algoma.

Davies' favorite materials are wood and steel; these appeal to him because of their aesthetic and tactile qualities. Rusted or polished steel magnetizes his eye equally as much as a knotted, veined or worn piece of wood. In either case, the inevitable draw is Davies's desire to reach out and run his hand over the material. He cannot resist the lure of the texture of either steel or wood. In fact, Davies has such a strong sense of commitment to these two materials that his dedication to their forms has not altered after three decades of assiduous work. This is undoubtedly because steel and wood evoke his goals the best. Also of interest to Davies are brass and bronze, for the practical reason that they are suitable for casting; for several large-scale works, aluminum has been the material of choice, again for practical reasons.

Davies, in the more recent, smaller-scale works, found objects hold increasing prominence. Davies has chosen corroded steel, patinated bronze or brass as well as "rejected" wood. He might sand or stain the individual pieces, but he believes that elements that are interesting on their own will work well to enhance one another. It becomes clear that in Davies's process he focuses exclusively on additive approaches to sculpture and, most important, that every object he chooses to work with has "lived". Its physicality speaks to its experience. Integral to our investment in corporeality, human skin is imprinted with scars and lines from specific life events or simply the passage of time; the materiality of a piece of wood or metal is comparably marked by the events that have been enacted on its form.

Davies' creative process remains a delicate balance between conversing with materials, an evolving vision of the final product, and the power of visual memory. On the role of memory, Davies said, "I owe more debt to that than any of my own talents." The power of Davies's memories grows through a natural gestation process that is not always determined consciously. The final product is a result of both the memory of the material and the artist's own lived experiences. Particularly in the case of the found materials, Davies takes a form that he discovered shrouded in dirt and transforms it into gleaming materiality. His principal interest is to take something that has been rejected and to make it into something beautiful. And on this question of beauty Davies is firm: Michelangelo's David (Accademia, Florence) and the Venus de Milo (Louvre, Paris) are examples of beautiful craftwork, but to him beauty is not simply a technical achievement of perfection.

Representational works, such as depictions of forms found in nature like the human body, categorically appeal to him less than non-representational or non-objective art. Davies defines the aesthetic success of a work by its textural relationship of form. A work must be able to withstand his intense scrutiny and demonstrate a formal harmony in its mass - the concrete components such as pieces of wood or metal - as well as its space, both the voids between elements within the composition and the expansive visual field beyond its physical borders. A successful work of art will have an internal dialogue between forms and materials. The ultimate test of the extent of an object's beauty is whether it evokes the viewer's desire to touch. This tactile urge defines Davies's sense of visual delight.

Equal to the power of materials in the evocation of Davies's memories are personal impressions of and from memory. His boyhood home of Wales remains a driving force in this sphere. Subsequent experiences with sculpture and architecture in England and Japan have also informed his psyche. Comparisons have often been made between Davies's sculpture and Welsh cromlechs, megalithic tombs formed from circles of upright stones or a large, flat lintel solidly balanced on two upright posts. Cromlechs are especially concentrated in southern Wales, particularly the region of Pembrokeshire, where one of the finest cromlechs of Britain can be found at Pentre Ifan, one of the many prehistoric sites Davies has visited.


Another significant experience in the early life of Haydn Llewellyn Davies occurred at Stonehenge in 1952. It was a time when visitors could still walk among the massive forms that are now protected by fences and he distinctly recalls feeling enveloped, enclosed, and at one with the great stone slabs. As the sun moved across the sky, the changing light patterns altered the physical appearance of the stones. The voids between the stones seemed like doorways opening before him. This almost mystical insight remains a significant revelation for Davies's ongoing interrogation of the role of the void in the apprehension of sculpture.

In 1968, Davies made the first of a half dozen trips to Japan and was captivated by the gentle character of the Japanese people and fascinated by the indigenous architecture. The explorations of form in works such as Homage (1974) were inspired by Davies's appreciation of the simplicity of Zen Buddhist gardens, the proportions of large-scale buildings, and the curves of horizontal members of bridges and the entrance gates to sacred spaces, such as Shinto shrines. His fascination with resolving complex formal interconnections can be traced, in part, to the appeal of Japanese joining, including the "cloud-shaped" brackets that produce the definitive flares of the corners of roofs.

The lure of art historical ancestors has also drawn Davies to earlier proponents of non-objective sculpture such as Anthony Caro, David Smith, and Ben Nicholson. Each informed his approach but Davies was particularly attracted to the unity Nicholson achieved in his carved, white-painted reliefs. Although Nicholson's work offered Davies examples of the values of "painterly" sculpture he too sought to achieve, his work did not engage Davies's attention in the same manner as Nicholson's predecessors the Russian Constructivists. Davies remains attracted to the Russian Constructivist movement of 1914 to 1921, particularly the work of Vladimir Tatlin.

In its broadest terms, Davies' works can be connected with Constructivism as geometric abstract art formed by lines and planes and dominated by formal order, clarity, and an economy of means. While Davies remains inspired by the aesthetic discourse of Russian Constructivism and exponents of the international movement such as Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner, his work is apolitical and his appeal to texture and worked surfaces demonstrates his reappraisal of the geometric austerity of much Constructivist work. It may be tempting to associate some of Davies's sculptures with the Minimalist movement, particularly from the 1960s. This comparison, however, he categorically rejects saying the Minimalists were "too boring" and that they "didn't make use of the space they took up". Certainly Davies successfully achieves a more vital and active examination of form.

Davies encourages us to explore his vision of sculpture. He regards space as a sculptural component equal to mass. In his mind, spaces, or voids, are themselves a means of delineating a geometric form equally as much as a solid element. Never one to leave his work to accident, Davies manipulates voids to enhance his final goal of creating tension in the dynamic way that form and space relate. Tension is Davies's mantra and, in a work such as "Space Composition for Eva", he wants viewers to question what is holding the pieces up. Here, the interplay of mass and void suggests they are falling or they are forces playing against one other. In "Study Piece 2", the planar shifts as well as the open and closed form elements are united by voids that unify to create the dimensional fabric of the work.

None of his works are at rest; instead, lines, angles and voids contradict one another, forming an object to which it is difficult to ascribe a singular meaning. At every stage of his artistic career, Davies has made viewers feel involved not only in defining the meaning of the work but also in resolving its three-dimensionality, thereby extending both into the viewer's physical world by incorporating the fourth dimension of time. Although Davies's sculpture has been described as simulations, forms which are made to resemble but not actually be the real thing, they can more accurately be referred to as simulacra, a copy for which there is no original.

Haydn Llewellyn Davies's large and small scale sculptures, in maquettes, were created as part of a dialogue with the production of abstract forms during the last century, and as a discourse reaching back to prehistoric forms. We are quickly captivated by his emotive sculptures and so we work to locate our position before forms that are solid and weighty, engender tension, and demand our active participation. These are not forms merely to be looked at by outsiders. The physicality of Davies's sculptures, both existing and implied, exhort us to allow ourselves a kinesthetic response and to consider the role of memory in apprehending their evocative nature.

Despite the mathematical and precise appearance of his works, Davies's sculptures are never a product of rational thought. He thrives on intuition and a penchant for tension; he manipulates form, and space becomes an integral part of the physicality of his production. An artist who consistently remains faithful to his materials, Davies often works with found objects which he regards as having "lived". A corroded piece of steel becomes, for him, more beautiful for all it has seen and experienced. The origins of Davies's forms and subjects are impressions of and from memory. He scavenges both building sites and the interstices of the mind, producing abstract works with profound visceral appeal.

Alison McQueen

Professor of Art History
McMaster University


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