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Olde School

Bill Davenport unleashes his inner goofball at Inman Gallery

They ought to be serving mead at Inman Gallery. In "Forever Rafter," Bill Davenport -- a self-confessed teenage Dungeons & Dragons fan -- expands on his medieval oeuvre, turning Inman's main gallery into a half-timbered hall. Posts, rafters, "iron" nails and bolts have all been goofily crafted from four- by eight-foot sheets of pink insulating foam board and then faux-painted. All Inman needs now is a sign out front for Ye Olde Tavern.

This is just the latest in a series of over-the-top projects by Davenport using fake wood. He has mimicked a massive dungeon door as well as an overscaled, oh-so-Black Forest cuckoo clock -- all from foam board. And although he's best known for his witty trompe l'oeil paintings, Davenport's got a BFA and an MFA in sculpture. His artistic past includes purposefully clunky little wood sculptures and crocheted objects, but this is his first foray into full-on installation.

Fake beams resting on fake posts span the ceiling. Davenport has added corner braces with decorative scalloping. Everything is painstakingly painted to resemble wood, with cartoonish effect. My only complaint is that Davenport's "wood" could stand some more knotholes. The gallery walls are still stark white, which I guess is sort of historically accurate, since the walls between the framing would have been plastered and whitewashed. But as great as the room is, something seems to be missing. Faux-aging the walls would be too HGTV, but having an object or two in the room could be interesting. Davenport includes small clever details, like a row of big "iron" nails protruding from the "wood," but touches like this just make you want more.

All Inman needs now is a sign out front for Ye Olde Tavern.
Courtesy of Inman Gallery
All Inman needs now is a sign out front for Ye Olde Tavern.

More of Davenport's handiwork is on display in the side gallery, where a massive wagon wheel leans casually in a corner and hammered "metal" braces are attached to the wall, seemingly straight from the anvil. The wagon wheel is an obsessive, silly marvel. The objects work well on their own, but I kept wanting to move the wagon wheel into the main gallery and see what it looked like in the half-timbered room.

Davenport has produced a helpful brochure to accompany his installation. It's purposefully badly Xeroxed on blue paper, with the homemade quality of didactic material from some local historical society. He turns his dry wit to excessively detailing the seven-week process of constructing this installation. It was made entirely from Home Depot materials, a "head-high" stack of foam boards, yards of hot glue sticks, gallons of paint and a lotta X-acto knives. His expenses also included hiring his yard guy for a day to help paint stuff brown, studio rent, truck rental...Davenport lists the costs and estimates that in the end he spent around $1,800 on the project.

The brochure is a refreshing take on an artist's statement. In it, Davenport points out a couple of precedents for his installation, citing a circa-1979 (high school?) job, in which he crafted a Thai Buddha from aluminum foil for a Virginia dinner theater production of The King and I. And he talks about "Forever Rafter" in a matter-of-fact, unpretentious manner. He points out the travails of installation art: huge financial outlay, little hope of return, a bunch of shit to store. In the past, Davenport has made interesting work that happened to also be conventional enough in its scale and materials to be salable. To artists who consistently work in installation or whose repertoire consists entirely of big unwieldy sculpture, Davenport may come across as a little whiney about the whole expense/storage issue. But he frankly concedes, "I expect I'll get nothing but personal satisfaction [from the project], but that's art."

"Forever Rafter" offers another amusing glimpse into Davenport's quick and unusual mind. Although his earlier work certainly has its own share of quirkiness, something about the scale here seems to have really unleashed his inner goofball. I can't wait to see what's next.

 
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