The Antihero

Is Bill Davenport's art stupid? Yeah. Brilliant? That, too.

Girl: Is that your dad?

Guy: Yeah.

Girl: Is he still alive?

Bill Davenport's works, such as Solitaire, don't depend on some kind of personal exchange; they're not sentimental.
Bill Davenport's works, such as Solitaire, don't depend on some kind of personal exchange; they're not sentimental.


are on view through November 13 at Inman Gallery, 1114 Barkdull,

Guy: No.

Girl: Oh.

But that's not a bad thing, because "Games for the Superintelligent" doesn't depend on some kind of personal exchange; it's not sentimental. There is no angst or catharsis; our protagonist has none of the traits traditional to his role as artist. His ambition doesn't tend toward the grand gesture of pathos or spectacle. He is the antihero we learned about in American lit. There's no trajectory to his ambition: His sculptures stay smallish, his canvases easel-size. They are small, droll riddles rather than sweeping statements. Davenport's even antiheroic as a shopper, delighting not in valuable finds but in the worthless junk that sinks to the bottom of the pile and stays there.

If he displays any overt skill, it's that of the determined hobbyist, not the virtuoso. One of his best works on canvas is Wood, a painting of three chunks of wood scavenged from some trash heap. On one, the paint is faded into tiny green dots. On another, it cleaves into curled white flakes. Lined up against a blank canvas like skyscrapers against a smoggy sky, the bits of rustic housing material undermine the urban reference. But that's not what's so interesting about the painting. What's interesting is the obsessive illusionism, the equal attention lavished on every mundane knot and splinter.

Many critics peg Davenport as a slacker. That may explain his sculptures, in which the beauty of his chosen materials is that they warrant little more than a shrug. He doesn't try to give them greater preciousness, just more heft of meaning. But "slacker" doesn't explain the attention he devotes to paintings like Wood, nor his sizable inventory of needlepoint and crocheted pieces, which are not included in this show. You could account for both types of work by invoking zen, a zen approach to objects that liberates him from using them in expected ways, a meditative ability to focus on the tiny details of painting that make even the lowliest objects look real.

But I prefer, perhaps because it's more American, the idea of the antihero. The person with a driving work ethic who's just trying to live. The antiheros tinker in the garage, or read paperbacks, paint or play solitaire, and those activities are all the same: small epiphanies without the letdown of the big denouement.

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