NORTH ADAMS -- With a new body of work to be shown at MCLA Gallery 51 in April, artist Andrew Davis is set to display paintings that capture several sides of his creative life.
Davis works at the Clark Art Institute, where part of his job involves creating simple facsimiles of the paintings that sit in the Clark's permanent collection. For the project "Clark Remix," Davis was asked to make a cardboard stand-in for each painting in the gallery that would allow them to easily configure the gallery the paintings were to be in.
"I made about 100," Davis said. "They were life-sized. They were pieces of cardboard. I got the exact dimensions of the frame and the painting and I cut to the size of the frame and then drew the painting on it with a Sharpie, just a quick sketch, a 10-minute sketch, so that they're useful. They had to be accurate within an eighth of an inch or they really wouldn't do their job. So I made them and they hung the whole gallery like that and then slowly replaced each cardboard painting with the real thing."
Davis tackled cardboard reproductions of John Singer Sargent, George Innes, Winslow Homer and several others.
"It was like an art education all over again," Davis said, "because I got to really recreate those compositions and you learn a lot about simple things like composition and placement, and they were fun. I gave them this cartoon treatment."
Each painting contained certain elements that had to be reproduced in order to be recognizable, so for Davis, the opportunity was an exercise in doing the best he could to capture the works while still stripping them down to their essence. This was largely a time consideration, but it a fortuitous one, in that it dictated the form the works would take and, therefore, functioned as a uniting factor for all of them.
"The whole thing, from getting a sheet of cardboard to cutting it, to measuring, to getting it all done, it was like 20 mintues apiece, so I probably had 10 minutes to draw," said Davis. "If there was a head in the upper left corner of the painting, then that's where it had to go, so I would do things like that with pencil, and really just put scribbles to indicate where things are. Then I would do work with the Sharpie to flesh it out. Since I draw a lot of faces in my other artwork anyway, on my own time, if I had two minutes to draw a face, then you lean toward the cartoon or the caricature."
Much of Davis' job at the Clark usually revolves around another practical use of his artistic abilities -- making models of galleries, which are then used by curators to configure their show plans.
"I'm making a dollhouse version of the renovated new building," he said. "It will be to half-inch scale and I make all the paintings to half-inch scale. When I do that, I just print them out. I do it digitally and print them out and cut them with an X-Acto knife. They're the size of postage stamps. They have these blueprints, schematic plans, just flat, and I started making these dollhouses and refurbishing the old ones that I had."
Davis' little models will be added to earlier ones that are still in use, and his will stick around for as long as curators want to change exhibits -- which means something close to forever.
Working in the curatorial department of the museum also ties in with another of Davis' art passions -- organizing shows.
"I was organizing shows in the ‘90s, when I was still in art school," said Davis. "I always did have an interest in it. It is a different art form and the two go hand-in-hand for me."
He started Davis Art Services when he lived in Los Angeles and was putting on exhibitions for auction houses. That work had a quick turnaround, but it piqued Davis' interest in such a way that he wanted pursue it in a more developed way.
Davis ended up not restricting himself to auction house work and began organizing shows for himself and his friends with the simple belief that the work deserved to be shown and he was going to make it happen.
"I took the initiative," he said. "That's still my guiding motive for Davis Art Services. What do I think needs to be seen in the world?"
Davis Art Services has continued that track in North Adams. For two DownStreet Art seasons, Davis programmed the Avalon Seafood Gallery, which finished up with the North Adams Downtown Makeover show, which challenged the blights of urban renewal to create a small city version of North Adams that had evolved more organically.
"That was controversial, although I can't tell you how many people came up and thanked me after that show, which is really gratifying," said Davis. "People who had grown up here said, ‘I cried when they tore that building down.'"
Davis doesn't typically shy away from controversy, in the form of politics. He programmed the Grass Gallery on Main Street for one DownStreet season, which featured the return of the ASARO Collective from Oaxaca, Mexico, and the anti-war group show, "End of an Empire."
Last April, he and his wife, artist Claire Fox, had a month-long art residency in Beijing, China, that gave Davis the opportunity to consider what had been said about that show, compare cultures and art practice and move forward with ideas for shows he wants to mount.
"It was an eye-opener," he said. "It puts this country in perspective in a different way. Travel always does, but it just felt like China's coming up and America's going down. I know that's over-simplifying it, and I don't know that I would want to trade one for the other."
"They have a lot of problems, but they have the will to grow and come together and accomplish things and move forward that is way different from the kind of dialogue we're having in this country right now. Sometimes it seems like the biggest discussion here is how to divide it up and make it go away."
The next show Davis hopes to mount will focus on the prison system in the United States.
"We lock up almost one percent of the adults at any given time, over two million people are working their way through the system at any given time," said Davis. "That's a lot higher than any other country on Earth. China has four times our population and they don't lock up half as many people as we do, and as a percentage it's way higher than any police state in the world."
In the meantime, Davis has been continuing his organizational work of bringing together friends whose work he admires under the Davis Arts umbrella. Most recently was a trip down to the Fountain Art Fair in Miami, which included Wayne Hopkins, Erin Ko, Anne Roecklein, Diane Sullivan, Cathy Wysocki and others.
"People that I like and whose work I like and admire, and I enjoy working with -- those three things, it helps when they all go together," Davis said. "Especially with a big undertaking like Miami. It's good if everyone can work well together."
But the main focus of Davis' artistic and organizational collaboration remains his wife, who was his partner in the DownStreet galleries, right down to renovations. He and Fox created a multi-media installation, "Dream Home," which is still on display at IS183 Art School of the Berkshires.
"Claire and I do a lot of things together, even if it's more one person's project or the other's project. We just work well together," said Davis. "The more we do, the more it's effortless. It's a good partnership. I always think in terms of the two of us together and we bounce things off each other."
And although Davis loves organizing, he's not so sure he wants to formalize that devotion into a permanent gallery space. He and Fox prefer the adventure of presentation to the routine of it.
"I respect galleries a lot, but I feel like if we went in that direction, I wouldn't get a lot of my own artwork done," he said. "We just want to make a lot of shows happen. We see things that we care about and think, the world needs this. They don't know it yet, but they need this. That's how we feel about it."
Andrew Davis can be found online at davisartservices.com.