Arts / Museums

Ian Davenport’s Stunning Waterfall of Color Turns Heads at Dallas Contemporary: Up Close With a Masterpiece — and the Artist

BY // 10.10.18

It was utterly my most memorable moment of the Venice Biennale in 2017: the midmorning Venetian sun cast radiance over the Venice Park, Giardini della Biennale, like a thin veil of veneer, perfectly reflecting the vibrancy of color that poured from Ian Davenport’s masterpiece painting, Giardini Colourfall.

So mesmerized by its dominance, I gravitated towards the linear kaleidoscopic fresco, a staggering 46-feet wide and 13-feet tall of colorful paint and puddles. I will never forget the powerful vivacity and awe that encompassed my first morning at the Venice Biennale 2017, standing in the presence of this waterfall of color. Now, this prodigious artwork highlights Davenport’s exhibition at Dallas Contemporary.

British abstract artist Ian Davenport’s career flows much like his artistic and investigative method, with meticulous precision, but also influenced with an element of chance. “I was thrilled to have the opportunity to make a monumental painting in such a wonderful context,” Davenport recalls.

“In 2016 I was invited to do a temporary installation project at the Jemoli department store in Zurich, whilst the building was being refurbished. I was able to wrap the sides of the building in an enormous printed image of one of my paintings. By a stroke of good luck, the creative director of Swatch, Carlo Giordanetti, came to the opening event and really liked my work. We got talking, and he mentioned about Swatches’ involvement with the Venice Biennale and their interest in art — as main sponsors for the Biennale, Swatch has its own pavilion, and it sounded like it could be a potentially great opportunity.”

Not long after his first encounter with Giordanetti, they connected again in Milan.

“I met Carlo again by coincidence outside the Pinacoteca di Brera Art Museum,” Davenport says.

Introducing Pêche

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“I had been looking at Old Master paintings and gathering research. We talked about the paintings by Raphael and Perugino in the museum collection, and it became clear that we shared similar interests about Italian and Renaissance art history. I explained how I use the colors from Old Master paintings as inspiration for my own work. After this meeting in Milan, Carlo asked me to collaborate with Swatch and create an artwork for their pavilion.”

Prior to the Swatch commission, in 2006, Davenport created a major public outdoor artwork underneath Southwark Bridge in London — resulting in a monumental mural, a landmark not far from the Tate Gallery.

“One of the things, which are very important for an artist, is reaching as wide an audience as possible, but this doesn’t have to be an audience that is necessarily familiar with contemporary art,” Davenport says.

“Southwark has to deal with ‘streetscape’ and the relationship between artwork and architectural buildings, buses, lorries, large numbers of people in the local surroundings. To make a painting that can be viewed as you’re traveling in a car is quite a challenge. It resulted in 150-feet long mural made in materials to withstand the harsh conditions of its outdoor location.”

For the Venice Biennale commission, Davenport investigates his method further from Poured Lines to Puddle Paintings, introducing a dimensional aspect to his vertical panels. The linear enamel and schematic colors are perfectly controlled, yet the crescendo — a moment of chance — ends with a puddle, a dimensional continuation.

Now with a captive contemporary art-enthused audience, Davenport says, “With the pavilions’ incredible position in the Giardini della Biennale I knew I must take full advantage of its potential impact and the extraordinary morning light. Making a painting that over 600,000 people may see is very exciting.”

Known for his artistic vision of movement and light, Davenport enlightens to the fact that, “Venice is famous for painters who explore color and light and I felt it was an opportunity to continue that tradition and make a 21st-century fresco for the Biennale.”

With many complex aspects to consider, Davenport shares. “Sight lines needed to be carefully thought about — how the composition of the painting would hold attention from far away and then as the viewer moves closer; offering up a different experience,” he says. “I decided to compose the painting in a sequence of colors that was repeated twice, to give the work symmetry, balance and a sense of classicism.

“There is a sculptural element too, as paint flows from the wall onto the floor and one can see the liquid paint flood out almost like a lava flow, or a multi-colored waterfall.”

No small feat, and with opportunity comes challenges, as Davenport elaborates, “Logistically speaking, a studio team of five people worked on the painting for over four months doing all the preparation including mixing hundreds of liters of paint, setting the work up, varnishing it, doing fine detailed touch ups etc. Then I worked on the painting every day for a month and was completely exhausted by the end of the process. I felt I aged a good 10 years!…

“When we finally got to Venice, the actual installation was also an enormous challenge. The week we were installing, there was a high tide, and St Mark’s Square was flooded. The banks of the docks, used to unload the painting were drenched and the boat, with our crates, just managed to travel underneath the low-lying bridges. Fortunately, the boat arrived early — the sailors said if they had left it an hour later, they wouldn’t have been able to get under the bridges as the water level had raised so much!

“Venice has extraordinary weather: Venetians laugh about the fact it has ‘four seasons in one day.’ We experienced storms, rain and sometimes sunshine at 80 degrees, all within a 24-hour period. Definitely some logistical challenges!”

A Star is Born

Ian Davenport’s career has seen a fluid motion of success and luck — with significant highlights along the way.

“I had a lot of early success, at my first exhibition at Waddington Galleries in 1990, aged 23,” he says. “The Tate purchased one of my paintings from the exhibition. A year later I became the youngest person to be nominated for the Turner Prize. To continue that momentum was difficult.”

Later, projects came at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery, Tate Liverpool, and Dundee Contemporary. There was his Southwark commission in 2006, which Davenport says, “was very special for the way it brought my work to an entirely new public audience.”

Still, the Venice Biennale takes the cake. “It is most certainly a significant moment,” he says. To reference the importance of Giardini Colourfall, Davenport exclaims, “It’s the centerpiece for the [Dallas Contemporary] exhibition, and the recent accompanying works have developed some of the similar ideas.”

To wit, Davenport is no stranger to the Dallas art scene.

“We hosted Ian’s one-person exhibition in ’94,” says art advisor and Dallas Art Fair co-founder Chris Byrne. “It was exciting to welcome him to our Dallas gallery [Turner & Byrne Gallery]. I remember being quite impressed with his approach to the work. He compared the making of his paintings to two distinct activities: the precise steps and gestures of ballet and an assembly line worker who refines their movements each time they repeat the same task.

“Ian’s exhibition was well received in Dallas — several young collectors, as well as the Dallas Museum of Art, purchased work for their collection.”

Dallas-based art collectors, Eva and Hooman Yazhari are also Davenport fans.

“Ian’s piece was one of our earliest acquisitions and holds a special place in our collection,” says Eva. “It is the first piece we see when we enter our home. The print’s vibrancy married to serenity, with a clever twist at the foot of the piece, never fails to make us smile. We also love the virtuosity of printmaking, which Ian displays in making such a complex piece. When we met Ian at MTV Re:Define this year, we enjoyed his wit and down to earth character.”

Curator of the exhibition, Peter Doroshenko, executive director at Dallas Contemporary enthused: “Creating and expanding a unique signature style of working since the late 1990s, Ian Davenport has never looked back. The deep thought processes behind each work creates a layering of information that few artists can maintain. Having Davenport’s first museum exhibition in the USA at Dallas Contemporary will highlight his rich history and newest artworks.”

Ian Davenport’s Horizons will be open to the public at the Dallas Contemporary through December 17.

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