Opening March 15th is Mel Davis’ solo exhibition “Begin Here” at Eleanor Harwood Gallery.  Before the show opened I had the opportunity to ask Mel some questions about her work, practice, and inspirations.  The exhibition closes April 27th, 2013.  Make time to visit her exhibition see the work and reflect on her responses from this interview.


-Gregory Ito



Installation view. Courtesy of the gallery


Mel, tell us some history about yourself and your artistic practice.


As an undergrad I studied painting and drawing at a little visual arts department of Concordia University in my hometown of Montreal. It was composed of some very serious painters that are still practicing today. I went on to do a brief stint at the Slade School of Art in London and then moved to the Bay Area to complete a Masters degree at the San Francisco Art Institute. The Bay Area has always represented for me sincere and thoughtful painting that runs parallel to the fray and so it seemed like an ideal choice for me to study here. After graduating in 2005 I have worked in my studio in Berkeley, exhibiting here and abroad. In grad school I was making colour field monochromes. These taught me a lot about light and nuance.  This new body of work at Eleanor Harwood Gallery applies some of that education but also is concerned with some of the traditional questions that go into making a painting; subject matter, content and the negotiation of space in the picture plain.


Mel Davis. The Royal End, 2012 oil on linen 10 x 12 inches. Courtesy of the gallery.


So there has been a transition in your work from painting loose gestural abstractions and color fields to incorporating new imagery of vegetation.  What brought you to conclusion of including these pictorial identifiers?


Yes. It happened because I wanted a more complex and diverse interaction with my paintings.  One way I got that was by methodically incorporating contrasting layers in the painting; starting with a ground that was representational and then engaging with that imagery using abstract, “open handed” gestures, sometimes bringing back the representational elements, sometimes losing them. But the imagery of foliage functions as scaffolding that I’m using to create an elaborate world that looks like visual poems of nature and also earnest questions having to do with formal issues in painting.


Mel Davis. Tango is a Fossil, 2013 oil on linen 18 x 14 inches. Courtesy of the gallery


Describe your relationship on color.  I feel like there is a complex dialog between you and the colors you bring into the work.  Its as if you allow the colors to be more free and become affected by one another, in other words you are constantly allowing the colors to mix and shine through when layered.  Can you elaborate on your process and the decisions made in the studio?


Yes, I think I learned so much from my body of work that was the colour field paintings. With those, the goal was always towards a type of balanced harmony, composed out of restrictions.  With these new paintings I entertained discursive ideas of colour relationships, striking multiple tonalities. Using thin layers allows for opportunities for colour to emerge.  I became interested in finding an infinite language that can describe continuity.


Mel Davis. The Clear Goddam of Thunder, 2013 oil on linen 20 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the gallery


Gesture is another important component in your work.  Your abilities to soften the painting surface through your marks is a quality I enjoy.  What help define this approach in your work?  How do you respond to paintings that are in the realm of hard edge and the super flat?


I respond to ALL painting in a positive way!  I am not that interested in ideologies. I believe painting is an example of optimism. I think that it is in my job description to investigate different styles in painting. So I don’t respond to the idea that artists have to continue in the same style for an entire career. Queries into the existential and fundamental nature of making a painting will keep the work sharp and compelling and truthful.


That being said, using gestural movements in a painting produces a quality that can work on multiple levels; it functions as a juxtaposition to a tighter representational image, it speaks about the fluid nature of paint and the fluid nature of consciousness. But between the polarities of representation and gestural mark making, there exists  a language that I am interested in exploring. I am curious to find out what that is.


Mel Davis. Space Between Trees, 2012 oil on linen 24 x 20 inches. Courtesy of the gallery


What are some of your inspirations and reference material?   What fuels your endeavors in the studio?


Poetry is always a way into a painting for me.  It deals with similar concerns; the problem of describing something elusive using metaphor. Rilke, E.E. Cummings and most recently Robert Creeley. Most painters believe in the daily practice of the studio.  I like going in everyday and just being there.  “Being productive” is not exactly the goal but setting up a situation where I can ask a bunch of questions will perpetually keep me in the studio.