Rob Davies:Watercolours

Williamson Art Gallery & Museum, Wirral
[Originally published on Corridor 8, July 2023]

Landscape as a genre has its roots deeply embedded in Romanticism and its associated concept of the Sublime, which emphasises the power and grandeur of the natural world. Through this lens, nature is seen as the primary source of inspiration, creating awe-inspiring scenes that can captivate and humble the human observer. The current exhibition of paintings by Rob Davies at the Williamson aims to explore this rich narrative of landscape. In his work, landscape’s tradition is preserved, while also being enriched by his eclectic choice of subject matter and experimental approach. Drawing from diverse sources and employing different mediums, Davies’ interpretation of landscape extends beyond its traditional generic boundaries.

The show primarily features large-scale watercolour works on paper, including inventive and unexpected use of other media like oil, household and spray paint. Davies’ application of paint shows the gamut of approaches, from loose gestures to controlled precision. These artworks are not just representations of physical spaces, but also reflections on our complex, evolving relationship with the natural world. Through Davies’ work, viewers are invited to delve into this vast, fascinating subject and perhaps gain a fresh perspective on the landscapes they thought they knew.

The worlds Davies paints are a complex interplay of absence and presence. Parts of his paintings might showcase meticulously crafted details — a hill, a tree, a river. These areas of detail are often juxtaposed with expanses of negative space — parts of the paper left intentionally blank or minimally adorned. The result is a stark contrast that compels the viewer to ponder the deliberate incompleteness. Each of Davies’s artworks is an invitation to embark on a journey of discovery. The works are not static images meant for a cursory glance; instead, they reward closer, more careful inspection. His styles and approaches can be kaleidoscopic, switching between different methods and mediums within a single piece. A closer look at areas of the painting may reveal an intriguing combination of decorator’s gloss layered with delicate watercolour, interrupted by bold strokes of oil and spray paint. The experience of observing his work is akin to navigating a dynamic terrain, where every twist and turn reveals something new.

Many pieces featured in this exhibition bear witness to a significant shift in the perception and depiction of landscapes, a shift brought about by one of the key inventions of the 18th century: the railway, which cut through and reshaped landscapes in a manner never previously seen and altered the way we saw and interacted with our surroundings. Davies’ works echo the process of rail lines fragmenting the terrain, as they present landscapes characterised by disjointed pockets of painterly information. ‘Off the Tracks’ (2014-15), for example, combines strong diagonals with a carefully depicted railway line, appropriated figures and painted areas in a variety of styles.

Perhaps most intriguing are the human figures that might emerge from the page, figures that inhabit these fragmented landscapes. They are phantoms born out of paint and paper, blending in and standing out in equal measure. These people add another layer of complexity to Davies’ works. They remind us that landscapes, no matter how desolate or untouched they might seem, are always inhabited — by us, by others, by stories and histories that are forever intertwined with the land.

The notion of landscape has become more complex during the Anthropocene. There’s hardly a corner of the Earth left untouched by human activities. The onset of the Industrial Revolution marked a turning point, creating a stark contrast between the human-made and what was perceived as pristine, untouched nature. The English writer Joseph Addison, during his Grand Tour in 1699, captured this complexity, observing that certain landscapes were capable of filling ‘the mind with an agreeable kind of horror’. His statement reflects a deep emotional response that is more nuanced than mere awe or appreciation of natural beauty. It speaks to the inherent conflict between human progress and the sanctity of the natural world, a conflict that is increasingly relevant today.

Davies’ at times gem-like creations meticulously articulate natural beauty in tandem with elements of human intervention — the harmonious alongside the discordant, such as railings or the casual wreckage of fly-tipping. In ‘Fly Tip’ (2015) a pastoral landscape scene is joined by an ominous black pool of spray paint. The urban connotations of graffiti-like paint is also used to great effect in ‘Embankment’ (2015), the scene defined by the spectre of dark paint, acting like a negative sky contrasting with the more traditional watercolour scene. His work elevates the everyday, transforming the ordinary into a realm of mythic magnificence through the thoughtful application of watercolour. It is in the seemingly mundane that Davies finds his muse, invoking a sense of the ethereal within the earthly.

Elsewhere the works have a palimpsestic quality to them. ‘Controlled Demolition’ (2023) exemplifies this by showing an actual work in progress, where large swathes of the surface are currently left blank awaiting further intervention. Things feel temporary and provisional with works showing their production, such as hand-cut edges hung simply with bulldog clips directly on the wall. Vitrines in the central space of the gallery show studies and working drawings. The exhibition as a whole has an energy about it similar to a working artist’s studio: possibilities are everywhere.

Tension ebbs and flows throughout Davies’ oeuvre, creating an intricate dance of emotion. He showcases a masterful command of focus, overpainting in areas, applying layers, toying with scales, and then shifting perspectives. His works are living, breathing entities, a palpable dialogue between the artist, the viewer, and the world they inhabit, making each piece a testament to the beauty found in the fractures of our existence.