Wriston exhibit takes viewers into abstract worlds

Olivia Hendricks

“My paintings are landscapes, but they’re not of landscapes, they are landscapes.” I was tempted to roll my eyes when abstract painter Michael Davidson made that remark in his lecture during the opening night of his exhibit “Territories” in the Wriston Art Center Galleries Friday, Oct. 30.
Yet, before this review moves one sentence further, please note: Davidson’s paintings are landscapes, but they’re not of landscapes – they are landscapes. They are worlds unto themselves and an entire sensory experience in two-dimensional form.
Davidson, who has returned to Milwaukee after 15 years of “too much expense and too many distractions” in New York City, gave his lecture at 6 p.m., before most people present had even seen his work. From the beginning, he acknowledged his hesitancy to describe his own work, given the problems that arise when “two forms of language, verbal and visual, collide.”
Again, this seemed like somewhat of an excuse or exaggeration, especially given the unexpected brevity of the lecture, but only because many audience members had not yet seen the paintings, which did, in fact, speak for themselves.
Davidson had originally wanted to give the lecture in the gallery among his works, but as doing so was not permitted, he instead settled for strolling through the exhibit with audience members after the lecture. It was there that aspiring artists could be heard seeking his advice, initiating real conversations; it was there that the few words Davidson had spoken earlier began to make sense.
Perhaps those words made sense because the paintings themselves made sense. Although they were abstract, each painting was plausible, seeming as if it were something that nature itself could have created, and very well might have created, in some deep, dark cavern or inside a flower that no human has ever had a chance to witness. It was in this way that flat canvases covered in oil and acrylic suddenly became landscapes.
Davidson’s more recent works, like his 2008-09 pieces “Lake,” “Mosquetero” and “Nature of Nature” were especially hypnotizing. All of them used dark colors and layering to give the sense one might step into the painting and explore.
Though these three paintings did the grunt work in convincing the viewer that these abstract worlds in fact existed, paintings such as “Heat,” “There” and “Clown Car” took advantage of the newfound trust the viewer had in the painting.
“Heat” felt like sitting inside a flower’s innermost depths. “There” was a trip to the ethereal realms. “Clown Car” induced a sense of being inside of something resembling, perhaps, a birthday cake.
Although each viewer may have had an individual sense of where the paintings were taking them, no doubt the majority of the paintings sucked them in, and took them somewhere. After all, Davidson’s are not paintings of landscapes. They are landscapes.
Davidson’s work will be on exhibit in the Kohler Gallery of the Wriston Art Center now through Nov. 25. Further details are available at http://www.lawrence.edu/dept/wriston/exhibits.html.