by Nancy Cason | photography by Jerry Atnip
If “still life” conjures up images of tabletop arrangements of fruits or flowers, viewers of Bill Davis’s recent paintings are in for a surprise. Piles of Parts is a visual catalogue of car components, a montage of corroded clutch housings and brake calipers, oil pumps and air filters, hose clamps and battery cables. But it is also a harmonious arrangement of form, pattern, and color that delights the eye and intrigues the imagination with its careful simulation of real, if unorthodox, still life objects.
“Freewheeling”—a term derived from a transmission device—describes Davis perfectly. For an artist who has spent the past twenty-five years selling his large-scale urban paintings through galleries from New York to Florida, this new choice of subject matter seems to represent a major career U-turn. Why auto parts? Obviously, they are a familiar subject for this lifelong car enthusiast and erstwhile mechanic, and representing them in visually complex arrangements offers a new artistic challenge. But one wonders, is there something more? Is his newsprint tableau of rods and shiny pistons, still slick with honey-colored lubricant, meant as a tribute to their unique design and role in making the motor run? Are those animated forms, enlivened with points of reflected light and subtle but luscious color, an attempt to seduce the audience with notions about Zen and the art of automobile maintenance? Davis demurs, leaving the viewer to puzzle over possible layered meanings.
Inspiration for his current work can be found throughout Davis’s garage studio. The ground level shelters his prize 1938 MG-TA as well as spare tires and boxes of reclaimed parts—treasured finds from the Beaulieu Autojumble, the mecca for vintage British motorcar salvage in England. Upstairs, easels and paint, computers and cameras dominate the studio space, while car paraphernalia of unimaginable variety is crammed into the shelving that lines the walls.
Davis’s lifelong fascination with British cars started in childhood with the construction of plastic models and culminated in college with the purchase of his first MG-TF in 1965. In the forty years since, Davis estimates that he has owned and repaired at least a dozen classic British cars. Currently he “crews” for Nashville’s Zapata Racing, a six-car vintage racing team that competes at premier U.S. tracks, including Laguna Seca, Watkins Glen, Road Atlanta, and Sebring.
Cars were also the dominant subject for his childhood sketches. An ability to visualize objects in perspective and to create three-dimensional illusions in his drawings sustained his early interest in art, despite the fact that it was not offered in his hometown schools in Crossett, Arkansas. But at
the Memphis Academy of Arts (now Memphis College of Art), Davis found ample opportunity to develop his artistic skills. When asked about the earliest influences on his painting, he explains, “When I was in school most of the painting instructors were doing abstract expressionist work, and I really wasn’t interested in that.” However, he remembers seeing an exhibition of photorealist paintings on campus that made a lasting impression. Photorealism was a new movement in the late 1960s; its practitioners typically projected photographic slides onto canvas to create hyper-realistic paintings of everyday imagery—cityscapes, still lifes and portraits. Davis remembers thinking, “I could do that.”
With characteristic practicality, however, he chose a major in commercial art, and for two years reveled in his study of illustration under modernist architect Francis Gassner. “This was a great opportunity. I had always loved architecture, from the simplicity of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work to the complexity of late-nineteenth-century iron-clad buildings.” After graduation in 1967 and a two-year stint at an advertising agency, Davis began a lengthy freelance career in architectural illustration, transforming the design ideas of some of Nashville’s most prominent architects from blueprints into fully realized gouache sketches of buildings, often set in landscapes of his own invention.
In 1986, Davis made the life-altering decision to paint full time. “I was ready to do something that was not conceptual and to move away from small tight renderings. It was a natural transition from architectural illustration to painted cityscapes—after all, they had cars, architecture, everything I liked.” One of his first large-scale works was Paris Rain, painted from a slide taken twenty years earlier on a student trek through Europe—“when it could be done on $5 a day,” he adds, smiling. Paris Rain won first place in a painting competition, earning Davis a one-man show in a New York gallery. His new career was launched.
That same year, he took an extended trip to New York City. “Part of the time I just wanted to be a tourist,” Davis remembers. “I would hop the subway to Coney Island or ride the ferry out to Staten Island just to enjoy the vistas of the city from a distance.” The streets of New York became the subject for thousands of 35mm color photographs—and the source material of paintings for years to come. “I knew from that first trip that I needed to be in the city to capture its energy in my paintings,” and for the next six years he split his time between Nashville and New York, staying with friends and working in a borrowed studio on the upper west side for two months at a time.
“I visited museums to study the work of the old masters and the impressionists and went to the Soho galleries to see the work of contemporary artists.” He was particularly drawn to the urban landscapes of photorealist painters Richard Estes, Ralph Goings, and Robert Bechtle. However, Davis was not interested in emulating their sharp-focus realism, preferring instead a more painterly approach that combines realism with impressionistic brushwork. Similarly, he avoided a direct replication of the photograph by making alterations to the image in stages, first in his drawing of the photograph and then in his painting of the drawing.
Davis partly attributes his success in making a living as a painter to understanding the importance of networking. Through Nashville artist John Baeder he formed a friendship with John Kacere, one of the original photorealists of the 1970s. Later, an introduction to renowned art dealer Ivan C. Karp led to a long-term association with New York’s Gallery Henoch.
Today, at almost 70, Davis is truly freewheeling, freed from gallery ties and the dictates of the art market. “I’m just doing things for myself, and if others like it, that’s icing on the cake.” What’s next? Davis answers slowly, “Well, I painted New York for a long time. I feel like I’ll paint car parts for a number of years. I’ve been thinking about wire wheels . . . you know, a hub with a few of the spokes coming out from the center. . . . ”
Bill Davis’s work can be seen and purchased through his website at www.billdavis.org.