The last time I saw a Robert Davidson retrospective was his Eagle of the Dawn show in 1993. Back then, all I knew about Northwest Coast Art was that I liked it. But, having learned a little since then, I appreciated the Surrey Art Gallery’s “Eagle Transforming: The Prints of Robert Davidson” as a chance to put my thoughts about Davidson’s work in some sort of order.
My superficial impression has always been that Davidson’s prints have changed dramatically in the last forty-two years. However, my second time around the gallery, I started to see the continuities.
For instance, from the start of his career, Davidson’s formlines have varied dramatically in thickness. He is especially fond of long tapers at the end of a line, such as the end of a feather, or at the end of elongated fingers or claws. Because of this habit, his formlines keep the eye moving far more than most artists’, which would account for the sense of movement in many of his designs.
Frequently, too, Davidson promotes red from the secondary to the primary formline color (although he uses a brighter red now than when he started), sometimes omitting black altogether, or else using it as the background for a print. When he does use a traditional black formline, he often used red as the primary formline on limbs or figures inside a larger one.
In addition, from very early in his career, Davidson has looked for unusual shapes to contain his designs. Although working in an art tradition that tends towards the symmetrical, Davidson often makes his designs asymmetrical. He is perfectly capable of a traditionally symmetrical design, as in “Eagle: Oliver Adan’s Potlatch Gift,” but his symmetrical designs have a stiffness (or perhaps a formality) that his other work does not. You might almost think that his symmetrical designs were exercises – and not wholly successful exercises, at that. Other artists succeed with symmetrical designs, but Davidson, I would suggest, is not strongly interested in them.
Accompanying the asymmetry is a search for form. A few years into his print designs, Davidson is already projecting his design on to a whale fin. Circular designs are also frequent in his work, both confining shapes and appearing as negative spaces in such works as the 1987 “Seven Ravens.” I was surprised not to see many split forms in the exhibit, but perhaps the reason is that split forms tend to be symmetrical by definition.
This interest in irregular and different shapes has served Davidson well over the years. “Butterflies,” printed in 1977, escapes the potential banality of its subject by placing the design into two circles. Similarly, a hummingbird design from a couple of years later avoids the usual cuteness of the subject by making it a stocky creature with wings attached to powerful shoulders.
Davidson’s least successful works? Those with extensive areas of cross-hatching, which work well in engraved metals or on carved wood, but tend to look unfinished in a print – especially since Davidson does little to vary them.
Nor is Davidson at his best with more than a few colors. Davidson’s palette is relatively small. In addition to red and black, it includes a royal blue and a turquoise. But, when he ventures beyond these four colors, the result can seem garish rather than bold, which may be why his color choice remains relatively cautious.
For me, one result of seeing so much of Davidson’s work side by side is that I now realize that his movement towards abstraction in the last decade is less of a break than I had previously thought. I knew, of course, that he had continued to do more traditional works while doing his annual prints, but I had tended to view the abstractions as facile works – as small ideas printed large to lend them an interest that they wouldn’t otherwise have.
I still think of these abstractions, which often take the form of closeups of a small part of a larger design, as working against themselves, because they expect the eye to linger when the basic tenets of the tradition have the effect of keeping the eye moving. However, even though I consider them unsuccessful, I can see now that they are a natural extension of interests that he has had all along.
My only complaint about the exhibit as a whole is that, by including only prints, it robs the individual pieces of part of their context. Davidson is a carver and jewelry-make as well as a print designer, and, to my eye, many of the prints in the show show the influence of these other media (for example, the cross-hatching).
However even with this omission, “Eagle Transforming” is well-worth a few hours and several trips around it. If you are like me, you will only notice some aspects on the second or third viewing.
And to those visitors who left comments saying that they don’t care much for Northwest Coast Art, all I can say is that they are barbarians who don’t know fine art when they are confronted by it. For myself, the only reason that I don’t look forward to the day when some of Davidson’s designs join Bill Reid’s on Canadian currency is that, when that day comes, he will probably be dead, and then we will have nothing new from him to admire.