When I first met Peter Davies in 1996 he was living the dream – showing in trendy independent spaces while still at college, and selling his work to important collectors. Before you could blink, Davies went from student to Sensation, and the art world couldn’t get enough of him. After endless lectures about the ‘death of painting’, Davies’s work was a breath of fresh air. He offered a reinvestigation into tired forms of abstract and text paint- ing, injecting wit and humour. He became best known for his cheeky text paintings, such as Art I Like, and his various ‘Top 100s’ that charted a hundred artists, giving a summation of their work. These paintings raised questions about success, celebrity and credibility. Davies said what other people were thinking and cut through a lot of art world bullshit. And al- though these works were seemingly about his opinion on who was good, he would revise his view before the paintings passed their shelf-life by superseding them with a new Top 100 that moved the same artists up or down in rank. Both artist and critic on the same canvas, Davies carved out his own career by documenting what the artists around him were doing. The best thing about Davies’s work was that he made a cold intellectual tradition of painting accessible – all you had to do was read it.
Over the past ten years Davies has continued to make text and abstract paintings, always executed in the same fat, inexpressive style. Recently I noticed he had begun using images. I didn’t know whether he’d changed his approach completely or was just developing another strand so I went to see him to find out.
When I arrive at Davies’s studio he shows me a ‘nearly’ finished ‘flow chart’ painting that he has been working on for two and a half months. ‘This painting was supposed to be going to an exhibition in San Diego,’ he tells me. ‘I didn’t get it finished so I sent another one.’ Davies explains that he has been working fourteen-hour days and feels exhausted, brain dead. It’s difficult to comprehend the hours he puts in, but to Davies there’s no choice – there are no short cuts, and on top of this he suffers from perfectionism. He is not the kind of artist to piss around in the studio and splash some paint when inspiration strikes. Although his paintings have the appearance of freehand scribble or random cut and paste, everything is worked out to the last intricate detail, drawn out on the canvas in pencil and then filled in one bit at a time. It an impressive but killer way to make work.
Dominating the studio is a painting broken up into at least a hundred images, most of them accompanied by familiar or made-up logos. This piece has Davies’s trademark pretty colours and immaculate finish, but the images, painted in a flat graphic way, are reminiscent of 196os pop art. It’s strange to think of pop in relation to Davies’s work because it seems throwaway by comparison. I asked him how the inclusion of images came about:
‘I recently realised that over a period of time I have been developing various series of work. They are all ongoing and happen at different speeds. They are linked together by formal concerns. Things like repetition and intensity and colour. They always include a system, or systems, normally with faults or inconsistencies in them. The newer work was an attempt to introduce some new elements, such as figuration and appropriated images. Things that perhaps people wouldn’t expect from me. Also to make paintings that weren’t just art about art but also include other subject matter, while having enough in common with my existing work to obviously be mine. It’s been fun for me, it has excited me and created loads of new possibilities for things I want to make.’
These images are not representational in the traditional sense. They are almost like stylised versions of images or logos whose origins have been forgotten in their endless reproduction. For example, a picture of a skull doesn’t make you think of skulls but of bikers or heavy metal. Davies explains, ‘I’m interested in the redundancy of ideology, the idea of something having once been symbolically significant or “meaningful”, but nowadays being disrespected or subsumed into mainstream culture, or even just having become a fashion statement. A good example is the famous Che Guevara poster image- once an icon of revolution and protest, now a must-have undergraduate T-shirt. I like that.’
What this means in terms of his work is that Davies has moved the discussion along from making art to making art about visual culture in general. Like most of what Davies does, this is clever. It’s as though he’s created his own visual vocabulary or shorthand, and offers a lot of freedom. Some of the images are accompanied by slogans such as ‘Back off Bitch’ or ‘I think you are confusing me for someone who gives a fuck’. There doesn’t seem to be an obvious connection between the image and the text so I asked him where the slogans come from and how he matched them to a particular image.
These paintings definitely add an interesting facet to Davies’s oeuvre, and the familiarity of their content gives them a broader, non-art appeal that is satisfyingly disposable, even though they take just as long to make as his other work and are heavily layered with meaning.
The slogans just amuse me, they’re fun. Some of them I have made up, some of them I have read or overheard. Like there is a Tintin on a camel and the slogan says “Taliban camel fuckers”. It makes me laugh.
While we’re talking about the images I notice a text painting called What Is the Matter with the Venice Biennale? It’s part of a new series of text paintings that have titles like Why Is British Art So Crap? and Enough Already. Unlike previous text paintings that were enlarged versions of Davies’s own scribbly handwriting, these are made up of hundreds of different-sized letters in various typefaces. From a distance, without seein the writing, these look like abstract paintings. Close up, certain words spring out because ofthe font they are written in, wharthey say, or their scale, and it actually takes a lot ofconcentrarion ro read throush from sta to finish. According to Davies, he began using typefaces because he wanted to express ‘a nastiest, angry side of his personality’- it’s as if this poison pen letter style gives him anonymity. Davies tells me that recently he has identifying with text artists who he hadn’t previously considered, and adopting something of their hands-off approach in his own work. ‘I’d been looking at John Baldessari and Joseph Kosuth, who I had originally thought of as po-faced and boring. Now for some reason I was seeing them in a different way – as funnier and angrier.’ But why slag off other artists? ‘I don’t really dislike them. It was a way of making me look at things I wouldn’t usually look at.’ One painting, What Is All the Fuss About? is constructed using colours taken from Agnes Martin paintings. Here, this minimalist, dispassionate style of painting and cool palette is counterbalanced by statements like ‘ ’tis a pity she’s a fluxus whore, and ‘why is she considered such a genius?’. These paintings are angry in spirit, but it’s anger that’s applied just as a colour might be. It’s fun in the same way as reading Andy Warhol’s diaries is – lots of words punctuated by the name of someone famous. In fact, they are endless fun and beautiful to look at.
As I’m ready to leave the studio I talk to Davies about a large painting he has just started composed of literally thousands of tiny squares, undulating across the canvas. It is a ‘remake’ of Small Touching Squares Painting – a piece he made at the beginning ofhis career that he now feels is a trademark work, and he sees this new version as a ‘reissue’. He tells me, ‘I’m much happier spending months working on one painting now than I used to be . I enjoy it. I like the immersion, it’s meditative. Maybe I have become more patient. I’m totally enjoying making it. Ten years ago it felt so laborious, so boring – now it feels pleasurable.’ I believe him. Despite the intense hours and the general stressing that goes on, I can see a lot of his anxiety has dropped away. It’s not just a confidence thing. I think that he now recognises what he has contributed to British art, and that he makes paintings that people want to copy or refer to. He would never admit to it, but I think Peter Davies has become the artist he always wanted to be.