In 1995 Bill Davenport glued four cardboard toilet paper rolls together in a little cluster and called it sculpture. In the mid-'80s he cast the puckered dome of a citrus squeezer and the head of an ax in bronze. He has crocheted a protective cover for a washing machine and arranged three balls of crumpled toilet paper into a snowman. It's easier to ridicule Davenport's art than a Virgin Mary daubed with beaded elephant dung and surrounded by butterflies whose wings are buttocks snipped from porn magazines. It's also easier, if you're interested, to take offense.
Davenport doesn't push the content limits of art, but he pushes the aesthetic and material limits. Just like the art at the Brooklyn Museum, his work lends itself to sensational descriptions of artistic depravity: Toilet paper rolls! Tin foil! Elephant poop! But to talk about Davenport's work in those terms, however technically accurate, is the equivalent of twisting someone's words into half-truths. Though the work enjoys being subversive, defiling audience sensibilities is not the central preoccupation here. Rather, Davenport's stupidity-with-an-edge is cheerful and enormously compelling. His latest exhibit, an initially untitled collection at Inman Gallery that Davenport now refers to as "Games for the Superintelligent," presents an array of new object-sculptures, plus his first paintings in six years.
Both the sculptures and paintings are predictably modest. Davenport refuses to believe that art is a more noble pursuit than, say, auto mechanics. The success of a piece hinges not on the grand gesture, but on remaining interesting. For Davenport, that usually means juxtaposing things that are so dumb you can't figure out, ever, what made him do it. Las Vegas Rock, perched on a small white shelf, is an igneous black rock with a logo-style "Las Vegas" painted on it, like the word "Hollywood" erected on a hillside. That's it. And yet the piece is friendly, funny and open. There's a paradox of scale, as if this rock is a stand-in for an entire landscape, and a play on the kitschy fakeness of souvenirs (the rock really is from Las Vegas).
Nifty Hive, a mud dauber nest on a coffee-can pedestal, might seem like a mockery of the notion that artists actually put in a day's work. Yet Nifty Hive invokes formal concerns: the negative space of the tunnels in the hive, the cylinder of the painted white can. If the piece mocks anything, it's our tendency not to notice the formal elements of such humble and immediate objects. Davenport loves the handmade, and a dauber nest, after all, is the ultimate arts and crafts project.
The paintings began life second-hand, their styles scavenged from the garage sale of painting history: gestural abstraction, hard-edged geometry, pattern and decoration. That's not enough by itself -- many abstract painters search for a way to raise the ante through technique: texture, glossy slickness or tools such as squeegees or sticks instead of brushes. But Davenport's strategy is more direct. On top of one canvas, where ribbons of paint swirl like DNA against a yellow ground, Davenport has painted a trompe l'oeil version of an old paperback, Games for the Superintelligent, that's so convincing it looks as if the actual book might have been glued onto the canvas.
Treating an abstract painting as a backdrop for an illusionistic representation is particularly perverse, because the abstract painters Davenport's imitating rejected the idea of painting as illusion. They wanted to let paint be itself, instead of trying to look like something else. But Davenport's transgressions are born of pragmatism. If you don't have a fork, eat with your fingers. If pattern painting is boring, add an object. If you want people to look at a mud nest, put it on a pedestal and give it a title.
Which is not to say the result is gimmicky. The objects Davenport chooses to paint -- other old books, a game of solitaire laid out as if the striped canvas behind it were a tabletop -- hold their own connotations, redolent of boyness. There's a book on fish, and one on geology, a Home Depot catalog and a proto-survivalist tome called Pour Yourself a House (if the daubers can do it themselves, why can't you?).
The sculptures, too, have an outdoorsy briskness. A hatchet is buried in a stump of wood that sits on the floor. A twig leans up against a plaster snowman (titled Stupid Snowman). Though the materials are ridiculously simple, the sculptures aren't pathetic; they don't have the confessional abjectness that was in vogue a few years ago. They don't beg sympathy; they're not metaphors for us. This is not Damian Hirst's shark suspended in formaldehyde, or Nancy Ruben's soiled mattresses.
Instead, the show's emotional quotient hangs back with a kind of regular-guy shyness. Its center lies outside the main gallery, in a hall alcove, where hangs Portrait of William G. Davenport, the artist's father. Framing the father's calm face is a game of dominoes, painted on top of the older picture like the solitaire game and reinforcing the implicit nostalgia for childhood that's deeply embedded in the show. Like the other pieces, this painting is difficult to interrogate. Since it doesn't ask for empathy, one's not sure if empathy is desired. The imaginary conversation goes something like this:
Girl: Is that your dad?
Girl: Is he still alive?
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
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.