For Julyan Davis, the English-born, Bath-bred, London-taught painter, there's a certain beauty in the "wear and tear" of the American South. Where Davis grew up, "it was always ready for a Jane Austen film [to be shot] ... it was so pristine." The South, Davis' South — he's painted everything from dilapidated sheds in Alabama to an abandoned canning factory in the Outer Banks — is more Shakespeare than Austen, more sound and fury than persuasion. "There's an informal side," says Davis. "You can look more into people's lives."
Davis will be the Gibbes Museum's visiting artist for two weeks (May 23-June 5), his residency overlapping with international arts festival, Spoleto Festival USA. His work will also be part of the Gibbes' upcoming exhibit, Vanishing Charleston (May 25-Oct. 21) which "examines the evolving landscape of the city, including several buildings that no longer exist" through the work of eight artists: West Fraser, Horace Talmage Day, Grace Albee, William McCullough, William Halsey, Linda Fantuzzo, Robert Merrill Sweeney, and Davis.
While in the Gibbes studio, Davis will be working on two to three big projects, he says, painting narratives of Southern folklore. As he writes on his website: "There has always been a narrative thread in my work. Even when a scene was notably empty of incident, I have strived for a sense that something vital happened here, or that something will."
For the devout Southerner, though, it may seem that someone from off — way off — would not be able to capture, on canvas, the vestiges of the prickly and peculiar past, the staccato narrative of the unspoken and the deeply felt. One may think that Davis could not possibly understand.
But Davis isn't try to dissect the changing landscape, the crumbling buildings, as part of some pet project or science experiment. He's simply an astute recorder, a natural historian. "I suppose one thing I've always liked is the way something considered nondescript can be made beautiful when juxtaposed by nature, or the way sunlight might hit it," he says.
We see this in his "Exteriors" series, particularly in the rendering of a Charleston rooftop. The viewer cannot discern, exactly, if the deep slant is part of the building's structure, or just the way the shadow is playing in the corner. The creeping vine and the exposed pipe and the AC unit are all equal players, saying in their gently blurred, life-like depiction: we're still here.
Oftentimes, perhaps, even, in the painting of the Charleston rooftop, Davis' oil on canvas captures are the last records of what was, right before the wrecking ball.
"A lot of what I paint is actually faded glory," says Davis. "It's already at some point being gentrified, then it's fallen into disrepair ... that has to me a certain pathos. I don't think I'm saying [in my work] to leave everything as is. [Change] is inevitable." Davis says he thinks he's painted several hundred structures across the rural South that since have entirely disappeared, from drive-in movies to gas stations.
Davis' desire to capture the fragile and fleeting remains of the past stems from a particularly curious moment in history: In 1817, after the fall of Napoleon's Empire, a group of exiled Bonapartists — among them Napoleon's foremost generals and aristocrats — fled to the United States, settling in Alabama, of all places. They founded the city of Demopolis, intending to grow grapes and olives. "It was fascinating to me, these aristocrats in the complete wilderness," says Davis, who learned about Demopolis by chance, picking up an old history book of Alabama post art school.
As newly graduated creatives are wont to do, in 1988, Davis decided to make his own pilgrimage, traveling from the Austen-like Europe of his youth to this tiny Alabama town. He stayed, and observed, traveling to other corners of the South, painting the interiors of deserted mansions, dry lightning erupting in the fields over the Mississippi Delta, swamps and rooftops of South Carolina. He settled in Asheville in the early 2000s and has been continuing his odyssey through the American South.
"You know an interesting observation was made to me by a New Mexico state archivist," says Davis as our conversation comes to a close. We've discussed his role as historian, as a witness to inevitable change. "The archivist was collecting film and old slides, and he asked me what sort of things I painted, and he said 'Film has to be converted to digital. Canvases have stuck around for centuries ... I appreciate you capturing the buildings — your medium is the longest, soundest capture.'"