Holland Davidson’s paintings have a compulsive quality; it is as if she cannot not help but paint them and we cannot help but try to fathom the intricate patterns and unsettling images that fill each canvas. Davidson’s work is on view at Indian Hill Gallery in “Along the Line,” a show that features sixteen large works painted between 1994 and 2018. Although not intended as a retrospective, the show enables us to see the consistency of Davidson’s artistic concerns during a period in which she has been working at the height of her power as a mature artist. No two paintings are alike, and yet every painting is unmistakably the work of a woman who is one of the strongest artists currently working in Greater Cincinnati.
Davidson grew up in Florida, an abiding influence on her art. She has a degree in scenic and lighting design for theater rather than in art. There is no evidence that other painters have influenced her work in any significant way. References to major artists appear in the titles of some works, but when this occurs, she is offering a commentary on these artists in visual terms rather than imitating or paying homage to them. “Warhol’s Dream” (2001) is quintessential Holland Davidson and a highlight of the show. Andy is dreaming in the Florida colors found in many Davidson paintings: aqua, pinks, shades of orange and yellow. The canvas is dense with circular patterns and surrounded by multiple painted borders. Above a disembodied smiling mouth, rendered in startling red, we can make out a harlequin hat. The more we look, the more smiling faces we see. They are like clown smiles, so gleeful they are scary. The painting, with its seductive colors, is both innocent and knowing, like the artist who gave it its title.
Davidson is drawn to carnival settings, as though the theme parks of her Florida childhood formed her vision of the world. Inspired by New Orleans, “The Mojo Filter” (2000) is redolent of the sinful, adult pleasures we associate with that city. As is the case with this painting, Davidson often works from her impressions of real places she has experienced. Red is the predominant color. On display is Davidson’s private gallery of images: skulls, harlequin hats, faces that are all eyes and smiling mouths. At the bottom of the painting, we can make out stools in front of a bar; at the top a bottle of absinthe, its deep blue contrasting with the surrounding shades of red. Davidson’s paintings are the most frightening when she juxtaposes the childlike with the sinister. No children were harmed in this painting. Despite its memento mori notations, we take grown-up pleasure in the beauty of its colors and composition.
The title tells the tale in “Snowballs out of Hell” (2015). There are snowballs, and they are smiling. Some of them even appear to have teeth. A gray background sets off the white of the snowballs and the squares of red and blue scattered throughout the painting. The canvas is covered with a gel medium, making these colors glisten like jewels when light catches them. This is the most tactile work in the show. Patches of canvas have been glued to the surface. Circles are incised into the thickly applied acrylic paint. No single image dominates. Typical of Davidson’s work, the painting is all focal point. Her art demands we grasp a painting in its entirety before we proceed to discover the many individual surprises it contains.
Many of Davidson’s paintings seem to have exploded onto the canvas: chaos contained within multiple painted borders. In “Voodoo Rodeo” (1998), there is virtually no background. At first, it appears to be simply a dense composition of random circles and bars, rendered in appealing pastel colors edged by cream and white. Taken in at one glance, the painting appears innocently beautiful. When we start to discern the details, the title makes more sense. There are hidden faces, eyes, bones, devil horns. A voodoo priestess has seduced us. Although certain elements appear repeatedly in Davidson’s work, she never seems to be merely assembling paintings from stock images. Every element of her art—color, image, and line—strikes us as necessary to the purpose of a particular painting.
There are many pleasures in this show. The humor of “Matisse/Picasso Battle” (2008), which has the feel of its famous namesakes but looks nothing like their work. The blue barnyard in “Country Life,” (2005), where we see the head of a cow on the body of a lizard. “Casino Seizure” (2010), a densely packed tapestry of small, mostly circular shapes swirling in the neon colors of a vast gaming inferno, both beautiful and frightening The most recent painting, “Fairgrounds” (2018), is gentler than other works in the show. It has less density of images and feels less intense, more orderly. Vertical and horizontal lines divide the painting into segments that are almost symmetrical. Red circles and squares spaced along the top and bottom of the canvas hold the composition in place. There are no painted borders, a sign Davidson’s need to contain the turmoil of her artistic vision may be lessening. We easily discern a red harlequin hat, the most iconic image from the fairground of Holland Davidson’s imagination. Softly beautiful, this is the least threatening painting in the show.
“Along the Line,” which also includes fiber art by Ludmila Aristova, appears at the Indian Hill Gallery, 9476 Loveland Madeira Road, Cincinnati, until March 14.