Late last week at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, Turner G. Davis' painted lions and monkeys and minotaurs were joined by real-life 3-D counterparts that unexpectedly materialized on the floor.
A huge stuffed owl stood on a pedestal, wings outspread. A preserved zebra's head, hacked from its corpse by the taxidermist, was hung on the side of a box. A boar, or maybe a javelina, bared its pointy real teeth at wary visitors.
The shocking stuffed animals, eyes aglow, were lent by the International Wildlife Museum, according to a museum worker; they were being set up as subjects for a drawing workshop Davis was to lead the following day. But their eerie presence heightened the charged atmosphere of Davis' fantastic works on the wall.
An indefatigable and imaginative artist, Davis has filled his exhibition, Fantastic Worlds, with wild scenes of monkeys drawing, fathers sprouting bull heads, little girls riding lions, oceans parting, moons beaming, firefighters flying. As curator Lisa Fischman puts it in a catalog, Davis pictures "mad lunar worlds of romance, secret codes and mysterious pathos; Gothic dreamscapes shot through with childlike wonderment."
Davis routinely paints his own family--his wife, Theone, his little daughter Josephine, and her even littler twin siblings, Victoria and Wyatt--into these "incandescent fairy tales." The artist immerses himself in the exuberant, imaginative life of these children, depicting them as marvelous, un-self-conscious beings who wear princess crowns and capes and fly routinely to the moon.
Literally, in "Josephine: The Girl Who Lives on the Moon." A mixed media on paper, this 43-page story in words and pictures is about a child with brown eyes and pigtails who rockets about the universe with her family at will. Davis revels in the endless possibility that is a small child's life. If she wants to zoom through space to Hawaii, or the Sonoran Desert, or infinity, she can.
In "Lake Superior," 2007, a big oil on canvas, three children are in an old-fashioned canoe, ready to set sail across the boundless lake. One child is in deerskin fringe, forthrightly pointing the way; another is dressed as a princess; still another is a medieval knight. The costumes give the painting an old-fashioned look, as though Davis, born in 1971, is merging his childhood memories with his own children's lives. (Now living in Phoenix, he was brought up in Rancho Linda Vista, the artists' colony in Oracle, the son of the painter James G. Davis.)
The painting works as a metaphor on many levels. Most obviously, the children are embarking on their future, setting out across the infinite waters. But the painting is also about art and creation. A monkey with a human face is right in there with the kids, drawing pencil in hand. One of the monkey's drawings, of a sea monster, has fluttered down to the sandy beach. A giant adult's hand--the artist's--reaches in and holds the boat aloft.
It's the artist who is launching the canoe, setting it to sail, directing the action. Davis is making a connection between art-making and the unbounded fertility of a child's imagination. The only rule in art is that there are no rules, as I used to tell the small children who once inhabited my own house. And in art, just as in a child's joyful mind, all things are possible.
One can picture the prolific, inventive Davis as an overgrown kid, happily jumping into the art studio, dipping into every tube of paint, making his mark on every surface. He makes big oils on canvas; large charcoals on canvas that are marvelous chiaroscuros in multiple shades of black and gray; ink drawings on amate (bark paper); gouaches on paper; small acrylics on paper.
Often, he puts himself in the paintings as well, mixing "autobiography with fact and fiction," Fischman writes. He takes on the persona of a benign minotaur--a man with a bull's head. He's gentle and protective in "Family Portrait," 2001, one of the ink drawings, cradling his baby on his human lap. But in "Escape From the Labyrinth," 2001-2003, a charcoal and mixed media on canvas, he's helpless. His sturdy little daughter is big enough to march bravely out into the complicated world beyond the labyrinth; all he can do is reach hopelessly for her, and watch her go.
The artist's love for his children is palpable in these works, and that love, as every parent knows, has its dark side. What does life hold for these small, creative creatures? What sorrows will shade their path?
In "Dream of the Farallons," a big 2006 oil on canvas, a family stands peacefully by the sea. At 6 by 5 1/2 feet, the painting is like a giant vacation snapshot. Mom and Dad are in their swimsuits, and their three small children are in costume, dressed as a Roman centurion, a princess, a Pocahontas. But something is not quite right. This placid group is oblivious to the huge shark at their feet; already it's gulping their beach balls. An oncoming storm is whipping up the clouds, yet Dad is powerless, even clueless. Plugged into his iPod and wearing dark goggles, he's deaf and blind to impending danger.
A couple of ominous paintings picture New York's Twin Towers just before the catastrophe of Sept. 11. "The Twin Towers," 2006-2007, again places a family on a beach, at the edge of the sea. The children are up to their usual tricks, masquerading in costumes, playing with fish, but Dad is literally buried in the sand, again blindfolded and plugged into earphones. A tragedy is in the making, but no one knows it yet. Pink smoke has begun to swirl around the tiny towers on the other side of the bay. The bright light of a deadly plane is in the sky, and a firefighter floats in the sky in full regalia, already an angel.
The people in this arresting painting have the stasis of a Balthus. Davis has brought to bear all his painterly skills in conjuring up their solid figures, the light on the beach and the stillness of the moment before everything will change.
There's nothing at all Dad can do about a Sept. 11, so he does what he can. He gives his child the courage to ride lions, as Josephine does in "The Night Hunt," a 2002 charcoal on canvas, and, as in "Josephine's Moon," 2002, charcoal on canvas, he loves her so much, he gives her the universe.