“There is a journey that takes place”: The symbolic art of Christopher Davison

“We have been disempowered by a rational tendency to deny our irrational roots, which are kind of an embarrassment to science, because science is the special province of the ego. And magic and art are the special province of something else,” Terence McKenna argued in his lecture Opening the Doors of Creativity. For New York based artist Christopher Davison, these words resonate at the core of his practice. Influenced by Eastern philosophy and mysticism, Christopher’s approach to making art is a form of active meditation, where he describes “the extreme and prolonged states of concentration in the studio is a way to form a connection to something beyond myself. There is a journey that takes place, an ecstasy and bliss realized. A channel of communication opens.”

Christopher typically works in acrylic and flashe paint on panels and paper in a stylised visual language that is reminiscent of Ancient Egyptian pictograph, Medieval illuminations and folklore engravings. Female figures, anthropomorphic beasts, daemons, serpents, all-seeing eyes, skulls and flames are some of the symbolic motifs that feature in his art and represent universal themes and experiences. Keenly interested in religious mysticism and Jungian conceptions of the collective unconsciousness, his artworks tap into this rich multi-layered symbolic language that transcends cultures and schools of thought. Christopher’s work is at once both immediately accessible and deceptively complex; like a tarot card, whose picture can be read at face value, or as a deeply ambiguous metaphoric symbol.                                                                                         

Christopher graduated with an MFA from the Tyler School of Art in 2006, and in addition to making his own art, he is a part-time professor of art in Philadelphia at the University of the Arts, and Moore College of Art. Christopher’s work has been included in exhibitions in New York, Miami, Copenhagen, Philadelphia, Boston, Rome, Los Angeles and Brussels. 

AMM: Hi Christopher! Let’s dive straight in: Consciousness and the unconscious seem to be recurring themes in your work. Can you tell us more about these two ideas?  

CD: These are such big topics and since this is your first question, let’s start at the beginning. At the birth of the universe we have the initial burst of energy of the Big Bang and the falling temperatures that allowed for the formation of matter. This inert matter, in favorable conditions, became capable of autonomous movement through the appearance of single cell organisms. Over time, ever more sophisticated forms of mobility evolved leading to greater autonomy. Out of higher animals consciousness evolves. Consciousness was the next big step in the evolution of autonomy. For the first time the animal mind was capable of exploring and existing in a mental landscape as well as a physical one. While we are still currently embedded in this phase of development (half in matter, half in mind) the evolutionary process is ongoing. So regarding your question, it seems likely that it is out of this metaphysical realm of consciousness that the next evolutionary step will occur. This next phase can be felt or intuited (enter the realm of art expressing the ineffable) but it is impossible to adumbrate anything about it other than the most basic of forms. Perhaps the world is heading into such chaos and tearing apart at the seams because it is finally nearing the gravity of this next evolutionary phase. As Terrence McKenna might put it, we have entered into the shadow of the eschaton.

AMM: The subconscious has close ties with memory. What is your earliest art-related memory? 

CD: My first art memory fuses drawing and magic. At the kitchen table Grandma Davison would tell me a story and while she spoke she would draw a continuous line on a sheet of paper. The line recorded the actions of the protagonist (“he walked over the hill and climbed a wall” would be a curve followed by a steep vertical line). While I was caught up in the drama of the narrative, the trick was unfolding without my knowing it. After a series of events the story might end by saying “and he fell down and rolled over and over until he turned into a pig!” This would involve completing the drawing with a spiral flourish (the man rolling over and over) and in one quick moment, the story and the drawing would come to a simultaneous end. The playful, ever changing line was so entertaining and tethered to the narrative that as a small child I would forget to pay attention to the fact that she was in fact drawing one cohesive image.

AMM: Your iconography borrows widely, from mysticism to popular culture. Please tell us more about the tropes and symbols in your art. 

CD: One’s art is always a self-portrait and during my formative years Christianity was always buzzing around in the background. My mother was naively but strictly against it and my father was naively but strongly in favor of it. I grew up with this tension very much alive in my imagination. Christianity, like many spiritual practices, attempts to give form and meaning to the deepest mysteries of life. Whether or not people believe or understand its symbols doesn’t take away from the fact that we live in a culture where these symbols exist. Not only that but these older spiritual symbols exist side by side with the newer symbols of our modern, consumerist society. The Golden Arches of a McDonalds stand next to an abandoned church. A person wears two necklaces, one a Nike swoosh and the other a cross. This is the culture we live in and my imagination has been formed by this mashup just as much as anyone else. In my more lucid moments I see the goal as being a subversion of the emptiness of popular culture by embracing its forms while simultaneously reconstituting them with the fundamental mystery of existence.

Garçon Avec Chat, ink on paper, 11.5 x 8.75 inches

AMM: Have you always been interested in symbolism in your art? What appeals to you about this form of expression? 

CD: My process is one of add, subtract, repeat. I will paint over or redraw a single image countless times. I’m compelled to push the image towards a breaking point and then bring it back from destruction. I really admire artists who are so in control of every phase of their production that they don’t need to mess with this kind of tug-of-war. For me however, each piece is a wrestling match and I’m never sure who the winner is going to be. But one side effect of this push and pull is that whatever is not essential gets gutted and whatever is essential is left in. I’ve never been particularly interested in Symbolism as an art movement though – it seems too trapped in time like Surrealism or Impressionism. I am more interested in the connection to pictographs. Besides calling to mind Egyptian hieroglyphics the term has far less connection to art history. Further, the phrase “the Word made flesh” enters my mind often when working. The positive space of the figure and the interlocking negative space of the surrounding area reminds me of shaping something that is just as typographic as it is figurative.

AMM: Closely linked to symbolism is interpretation. How do you intend for people to engage with your work? 

CD: I used to bind all my drawings together into books. The expectation for a book is that it will be held in one’s hand or stored neatly on a shelf. It’s a friendly and humble medium. It’s less about single image and more about a cohesive whole. I gave up making books after grad school because I wanted to make individual pieces that could stand on their own in a gallery. However, most of my exhibitions have included a cluster of drawings hung salon style – which basically is just a deconstructed book. I’ve continued making small works on paper (often drawn on pages from discarded books) and these can be shown individually or in clusters but after pursuing painting on canvas and panel for quite a few years now, I’m starting to come back to the spirit of producing books again. I feel that painting has become (perhaps it always was) a luxury good you hang on your wall for status. This takes art out of the hands of the common people where it belongs and encourages artists to make work for the private eyes of the wealthy and not for the greater good of the population. So my work is a project that is ongoing and still unfolding. I’m a late bloomer. At best I want my work to enter the popular imagination and subvert the emptiness of materialist culture with a living spirituality.

AMM: In a previous interview you described your process as “ego-dissolving ecstatic techniques to create work, the artistic process becomes a form of yoga.” What exactly does this mean? Take us through your process. 

CD: Yoga means one thing in popular culture in the West but something quite different in its traditional context. The three main schools of yoga discussed in the Bhagavad Gita are Bhakti (devotion),  Jnana (knowledge), and Karma (action). Each is a means to “yoke” the adherent to the divine. So when I said it was a form of yoga I meant the extreme and prolonged states of concentration in the studio is a way to form a connection to something beyond myself. There is a journey that takes place, an ecstasy and bliss realized. A channel of communication opens. When I’m in this state I write as well as draw. The writings never feel like something that I thought of but more like a thought that drifted into my head that I “caught”. The drawings are the same way. When I’m in this state I could care less about my likes or dislikes. I feel less like an artist and more like a scribe. I might be a bad scribe, I might not yet have gotten the words just right, but I feel that there is something authentic that I am coming in contact with. Something ineffable that is attempting to come through. We could have an entire discussion on this and the specific techniques employed. It’s a great topic!

AMM: Much of the subject matter in your art is archetypal. What themes and ideas are you exploring in your art? 

CD: Jung has had a big influence on my art and the way I think about image making. My understanding of archetypes is primarily linked to his writings on dreams. Besides Coomaraswamy he is probably the author I have read the most. The notion that behind the changing surface of appearances of the physical world there is one eternal reality is the basis for most religions and spiritual practices. In this way, again, the artistic practice becomes a form of yoga. To draw or paint individual figures in such a way that you attempt to reveal their eternal changeless character. Not as an intellectual exercise or for the sake of a style but as a genuine experience that requires a kind of transcendental state of mind. I realized that the female figures in my work were often analogous to Jung’s concept of the anima (that in each man there is a psychic component of his mind that is female that he must activate to become fully himself). She is a part of myself – not an external female figure that I am objectifying. She is me.

Right Of Spring (I), pencil, ink on paper, 13 x 10 inches

AMM: What role do dreams play in your art? 

CD: Specific dream imagery occasionally makes an appearance in my art but I’m more interested in the latent power of dreams whereby we “see” with our closed, inventing fantastical architecture, people and animals, seemingly without conscious effort. Plotinus talked about “the eyes of the body” and “the eyes of the mind”. The eyes of the mind are what we encounter in dreams but also, perhaps, the eyes we see through in the depth of meditation or when looking inward in general. I give a Plotinus reading sometimes in class where he discusses this and then I do closed eye visualization experiments with my students. In 10 minutes I can get all of them to see colors and patterns. In 15 minutes some begin to see moving images. It’s just like what you would see if you were dreaming but you are perfectly awake. Jung said that we are dreaming all the time but the intensity of physical reality kept us from seeing these dreams. I love the idea that throughout the day there is an ongoing undercurrent of dreams that we are unaware of. When we tune out the physical world and adopt the alchemical saying “while sleeping watch” we gain access to this stream of imagery whether we are awake or asleep. I’m more interested in this power that seems completely unharnessed in our lives. Our waking lives are only a part of our experience in this life. The other half is completely shrouded in mystery. I think most people are happy to get on with their day once they wake up because if you think too much about this kind of thing it starts to completely undermine your most basic notions of reality.

AMM: The stylised figures in your works on paper are reminiscent of characters from vintage comic books. What did you grow up reading, watching and listening to? What have been some of the things/people that have influenced you artistically?  

CD: I never looked at comics as a kid and wasn’t into cartoons either. I appreciate them now on an aesthetic level but that’s probably because they have something in common with Ukiyo-e prints, medieval illuminated manuscripts, Indian miniatures, Peruvian textiles, etc. It would be so much easier if I liked anime and drew figures that were somehow an emulation of that style. Unfortunately for me, I have to draw each figure for myself and allow the exaggerated features or other stylized effects to happen on their own. I definitely take the scenic route when drawing the figure. I often render a figure with three-dimensional modeling and then paint the whole thing out just to make it flat again. It’s really the process that makes it look the way it does more so than any singular visual source that I’m pulling from.

AMM: What are you watching, reading, listening to currently? 

CD: I really have a hard time getting into movies but books and lectures are always in the rotation. I just finished reading an amazing book called Meister Eckhardt and the Beguine Mystics. It’s about the “women’s movement” of the 13th century and its relationship to Meister Eckhardt. Anyone interested in feminism should certainly look up the Beguines. I just finished listening to Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now” and also highly recommend that as well. This quote sums it up nicely: “Nothing has happened in the past; it happened in the Now. Nothing will ever happen in the future; it will happen in the Now.”  Most of the books I read are on mythology, philosophy and spiritual practices (especially Eastern Philosophy and Christian Mysticism). I’m not reading him right now but a significant influence on my thinking about art and spirituality has come from the writings of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. I found a copy of his “Dance of Shiva and other Essays” at the Strand Bookstore one day and fell head over heels for it.

AMM: What role does narrative play in your work?

CD: We are meaning making and meaning seeking creatures. Even if the fundamental truths of the universe can be expressed mathematically, we need warm blood flowing through truth to bring it to life.

Amulet (VI), ink, wax pastel on paper, 13 x 10 inches

AMM: Please tell us about the mediums you work in and what appeals to you about them. 

CD: For painting I use a lot of Flashe and acrylic. I don’t like the plastic sheen of acrylic so I cut it with the super matte of Flashe (a vinyl based paint that on the surface looks like gouache). This hyper matte quality brings me back, once again, to books because the end result looks more like the printed color found in vintage book illustrations than it does in a really fatty oil painting. I use Neocolor I pastels (I find that the Neocolor II are too soft for the pressure I use) for works on paper and I also use them for drawing on paintings to help me figure out the basic forms of a figure. On paper I use a lot of Sumi ink and Pitt Oil-based pencils. They each provide a rich velvety black. I absolutely love Sumi ink and the effect it has on a range of papers. You can do some awesome paper marbling with Sumi ink also.

AMM: What does your studio look and feel like? 

CD: When we lived in Philly I had a pretty large studio with enough space to really give it a distinctive atmosphere. Since moving to NYC I’ve been working from home in a smaller space. The entryway to the space is hung with a floor to ceiling textile form Uzbekistan but besides that and a plant in the window there is only room left for art supplies and stacks of paper or panels/canvases. I used to always burn Nag Champa when starting a studio session but since we had the baby a few months ago I’ve cut that out. I’ve met some amazing artists since moving here who work in equally small spaces and I’ve had enough studio visits with galleries that I’ve realized that in NYC you do what you can and you make it work.

AMM: Please tell us about the work/s you are busy with right now. What are they of, any challenges, what are you thinking about while you’re working on them?

CD: Paintings on panel have preoccupied much of my focus this year. I paint over them again and again – constantly trying to refine or more clearly express the image. What’s left on the surface looks very direct or quick but underneath the surface is iteration upon iteration. I probably change things to a fault but I prefer this kind of reworking to leaving a trail of images that do not yet express the kind of truth I’m after. The things on my mind right now are probably the things on most peoples’ minds: the impending environmental collapse, the need to manifest more love (in a world where hate seems to be on the rise), the need for self-actuation, etc. I’m a bit obsessed with Terrence McKenna’s notion that if the world is falling apart it’s not the politicians that we are to blame but it is the artists who have failed us. The artists have failed to “sing a vision” that can unite all of us and steer our culture in a meaningful way. The world desperately needs artists as culture heroes to enact true change in the world. Search “Terrence McKenna, Opening the Doors of Creativity” on YouTube for the full talk (but I also posted a clip on my Instagram).

AMM: How has your work changed and developed over the years?        

CD: There is a progression over the years for sure. I find most of my old work to be very dark and depressing. I’ve been through some dark periods in my life and the art is probably a reflection of this. It’s like I have to have the art and my life going well at the same time or else the one negatively impacts the other. The old work is similar to my current work in terms of content but the mark-making was too fussy and the palette way too dark (at least for my taste now). The new work is about paring down and trying to express what is essential in the most efficient way possible. My process is the opposite of efficient but I want the end result to achieve a kind of efficacy. Perhaps one day I’ll synchronize process and result but that has thus far eluded me – I make art because it’s really difficult for me to do and I always feel like I’m fumbling around in the dark. But after all these years and all this trial and error I finally feel like I’m nearing something that is a visual analog to my interest in spirituality and philosophy.

AMM: Do you have any projects coming up? What’s next for you? 

CD: I am busy collecting my various writings (which I’ve never made public before) and drawings that relate to the Ego. My plan is to either self-publish or find a small scale publisher who is interested. There are a couple collaborative textile/fashion projects which are in the works and I’ll post about them on Instagram once they are completed.

Find out more about the artist: www.christopherdavison.com

Interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.

Night Light, pencil, ink on paper, 13 x 10 inches