Last week, the Joshua Liner Gallery seemed more like a museum of dreams, themes and schemes than a mere gallery. The Mike Davis paintings in the exhibit Stories From the Other Side of the Bridge had a centuries-old quality with a layering, craftsmanship and attention to detail that one doesn’t encounter often. Of course, there’s a twist to these twisted narratives that border on the surreal.
Mike Davis, who is completely self-taught, started drawing pictures on the back of his school papers while bored during grade school. And he never stopped. In his biography, it states that he “scammed” his way into painting stage scenery for opera and ballet while in his twenties. In the late 1980s he began tattooing (a trade that he continues to this day), honing his artistic skills while continuing to study the masters. In the late ’90s he got serious about his painting by narrowing his scope to Greek, Roman, Egyptian and most of all, the early Flemish and Dutch painters (particularly Bosch, Bruegel and Van Eyck). Once he fine-tuned his influences, he felt the need to supply specific content, which he claims is mostly autobiographical. Davis adds hidden themes, puzzles and secret messages that tie one painting to another. The result is a profound and bizarre combination of 15th-century painting with more modern surrealist elements. These paintings encompass a world of fantasy and myth in a strange land “on the other side of the bridge.”
Indeed, one could describe many of these oil-on-canvas paintings as “Bosch on mushrooms.” In Davis’ “Forward, Not Straight,” there is a skeleton in which the head is made out of a birdhouse (pierced by arrows) propped up on a dirt road against a complex sky and a lush bucolic landscape. A stopwatch hangs upon the spine (another recurring theme), and the skeleton’s hand appears to be grasping (or letting go of) a butterfly. Around the arm is a menacing snake that’s lashing at the same butterfly.
Davis’ tattooing skills come into play when considering the intensity of detail. Some paintings contain “drawings within the paintings” that seem so real that one can almost crumble the paper. The blades of brown grass and weeds are another example where detail virtually gives the images life—and death. Though Davis explained that he doesn’t necessarily base his paintings on sketches, he does create quick drawings that contain many of the themes of his paintings. He told me that when he has a few minutes at his San Francisco tattoo shop, he’ll whip up a drawing. Here is where his tattooing trade really shines through and the connection between the two art forms is more easily recognized.
Davis’ desire to create “old paintings” led him to this very innovative style in order to not merely repeat the past. Progressing without formal training, completely on his own, Davis carved a solitary path for himself. Disarmingly down to earth, Davis downplays his remarkable achievements. His lack of pretentiousness is refreshing, both in his personality and his work.
Mike Davis, “Stories From the Other Side of the Bridge,” through June 27 at Joshua Liner Gallery, 548 W. 28th St., 3rd Fl. (betw. 10th & 11th Aves.), 212-244-7415.