Damien Davis: Patterns, Play, and Sticky Spaces
I first fell in love with fiber art in the context of textile printing. While creating my first patterns, I discovered how shapes and symbols function as a language to explore histories and generate new narratives. It’s this connection between pattern, language, and history that drew me to the work of interdisciplinary artist, Damien Davis. Davis’ textile patterns and collage works take shapes and push them to the limits of what they can mean, combining imagery from the artists’ personal experience, imagination and research, to create a lexicon of blackness.
The vibrant colors, kaleidoscopic compositions, and graphic shapes instill Davis’ work with a strong sense of play. Play is a way of learning. As children, play allows us to create connections and recognize patterns and systems within our culture. As adults we return to play in order to forget these systems and experiment with new ones. Play grants us momentary freedom from conventional logic allowing us new insight into familiar materials, symbols and ideas. Artist’s can use play in their work to promote viewers to engage with difficult ideas and questions from unfamiliar vantage points. One of the more impressive features of Davis’ work, is his ability to use playfulness in order to engage the viewer in difficult questions drawing them into the work while cutting off easy exits and frustrating reductive readings.
When viewing Davis’ patterns, I find my focus shifting between the overall pattern and the individual symbols it’s comprised of. One pattern, for example, could be mistaken for a floral, but the motifs are not blossoms or leaves but black male silhouettes and teeth, motifs from Davis research into the American slave trade.
Like much of Davis’ work, this piece creates a ‘sticky space’ for viewers by juxtaposing the playfulness and beauty of his patterns with difficult connotations and histories of his motifs. I read Davis’ use of patterns as a profound and inventive form through which to explore racism and other systems of oppression in our history and in contemporary life. In the same way a pattern is defined by the fact of it’s repeating history is irrevocably connected to the structures that enable oppression and injustice today. A pattern is understood visually as a dynamic whole comprised of individual symbols and motifs. Just as motifs cannot be removed without compromising a pattern’s logic and coherence, histories of oppression and injustice in America are in fact the history of America. This reality cannot be obscured or separated without rendering the whole distorted, false and unrecognizable.
It is difficult for me to draw a simple conclusion about Davis’ work – which speaks to his talent for creating visually powerful works that communicate with nuance and depth. As my eyes swirl around Davis’ motifs, I am reminded of textile art’s power as a narrative medium, and the important role we play as makers and viewers in deciphering, understanding, and listening to the experiences they recall and meanings they create.
For more information on the artist’s work visit: http://www.damiendavisstudio.com
Janina Anderson is an artist, writer, and educator currently based in Montréal.