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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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Professor of Art History