Kalli Rolfe Contemporary Art

MCA Exhibition Guide

The work of Juan Davila consistently argues for an active role for the artist in society. Born in Santiago, Chile in 1946, Davila moved to Melbourne, Australia in 1974 and has worked between the two countries ever since. As an artist and writer, Davila has taken a gadfly-like position in public discourse in Australia and Latin America, presenting incisive analyses of what he views as the complacency, monotony, and questionable ethics of much contemporary culture. Considered as a whole, Davila’s critical practice has produced a uniquely provocative, powerful and influential body of work.

Juan Davila is the first major solo museum exhibition of Davila’s work, featuring a focused selection of paintings, installations and works on paper from the mid-1970s to the present. It aims to draw out some of the artist’s important concerns over the past thirty years, tracing formal and conceptual developments in Davila’s work over time. Key themes and motifs recur throughout the exhibition, enabling connections to be made across the breadth of Davila’s practice, highlighting the artist’s constant innovation as well as his consistent approach to art as an agent of social comment and change.

Since the early 1970s, Juan Davila has used the medium of painting to engage in debates around aesthetics, politics and sexuality, drawing on its rich and varied histories in Latin America, Australia, Europe and North America. His early paintings such as El Ahorcado, Leda and The Chariot (all 1975) were produced in his native country of Chile and exhibited shortly after the violent coup in 1973, which established the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. These works, infused with the techniques and psychoanalytic concerns of surrealism, also reference images and objects of popular culture. For many years Davila has brought to high art the visual landscape of the street: tarot cards, comic strips, pornography, political cartoons and cheap souvenirs. Works such as Hysterical Tears (1979) Rat Man (1980) and Tod (1980) feature graphic images from Chilean political magazines and the erotic drawings of Tom of Finland alongside visual quotations of artists from Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein to Allen Jones and David Hockney. In these works, Davila openly lists his references on the paintings as a way of making his quotations transparent rather than unstated, as well as breaking down the concept of a singular author. Davila’s lists and indexes are often accompanied by symbols such as bar codes and corporate logos, each denoting the systems of authentication that confirm identity, ownership and value in capitalist culture, which includes the signature of the artist.

While this challenge to the high-low divide is recognisable to those familiar with the strategies of the Western avant-garde from dada to pop art, Davila’s approach also arises from the hybrid modernism of Latin America, which has always incorporated indigenous, colonial and external influences. Works such as Mexicanismo (1990) incorporate a range of Latin American images displaying this mixed heritage, from colonial angel pictures to the murals of Diego Rivera to tea-towels featuring modernist grids. As a visual archive, Davila’s works are not simply reflections of a society awash with images, but a carefully articulated questioning of the hierarchies applied to cultural material, and by extension, cultures. Speaking from the peripheral zones of Chile and Australia, Davila’s collages answer back to the overwhelming image-world of the European and American centres of Paris, London and New York, fracturing and opening it up to diverse interpretations.

Davila’s fragmentation of pictorial unity through collage creates shifts in perception, challenging singular readings and promoting uncomfortable ambiguity and contradiction. This tension is also embodied in figures of multiple or mixed identity which regularly appear in Davila’s work: the mestizaje, or ‘half-caste’; the transsexual or hermaphrodite; and the go-between who lives across several cultures. Public attitudes toward these figures, who do not fit neatly into proscribed roles of citizen or consumer, are almost always negative, revealing deep fissures in the social order. Paintings such as The Barricade (1989), Retablo (1989) and Schreber’s Semblance (1993) feature figures displaying the physical attributes of both genders, in highly charged works of sexual and psychological anxiety. Often, as in Flower Vendor (1993) and The Liberator Simón Bolívar (1994) these figures are also of mixed race, further complicating identity. In the latter work, by racially and sexually recasting a personage revered by numerous countries in Latin America, Davila opens up the hidden tensions that lurk beneath any official history or national mythology.

Representations of nationhood are also attacked by the artist in paintings such as Utopia (1988), and The Australian Republic (2000), as are the politicians who propagate them, in works such as Nothing if not Abnormal (1991) and The Medical Examination (1999). Here, Davila draws on traditions of savage political satire, agitprop and cartoons to undermine the carefully manicured images of political leaders, uncovering the base human desires that operate behind them. More recently, Davila’s critiques of Australian political culture have responded to the situation of refugees, who are also ambiguous figures triggering social anxiety. Davila’s rendering of them as white middle-class bodies in works such as Election 2001, Detention Place and The Woomera Concentration Camp, South Australia, January 2001 (all 2002) projects the figure of the refugee directly into the forefront of our consciousness.

The ‘Woomera’ works are also indicative of a shift in technique for Davila over the past five years or so, into a more narrative form of picture-making that references 19th century French salon painting. This style, produced in a city at its zenith of cultural power, was later challenged by the early French moderns, notably Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet. Davila returns to a moment before this disruption to create works of political and emotional impact, in paintings such as Two Women on the Banks of the Yarra (2003) and The Painter’s Studio (2006). He also questions modernism’s myth of origin in Paris by locating it within Indigenous cultures, which were subsequently overtaken by the West, a process suggested in Panorama of Santiago, Chile, 1973-2003, which depicts the modernist bridge over the Mapocho River built by Gustave Eiffel’s company. Davila’s recent portraits such as The Origin of the World (2003) and Guacolda del Carmen Gallardo (2004) depict specific individuals, rejecting the ‘universal’ figures and idealised, even subjugated, women of European painting, including those of the early modernists. By working with friends from Chile and Melbourne as models, Davila emphasises the artist’s studio as one of the few remaining sites for the construction of a politicised vision, as well as revitalising the genre of figurative painting rendered unfashionable by the dominance of modernism and post-modernism.

© Russel Storer, Courtesy of the MCA
Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art

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