Colin Davidson in His Studio
A slightly edited version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 11 May 2014.
The genesis of Colin Davidson's new exhibition lies in a series of conversations between Davidson and the gallery owner Oliver Sears. The discussion began when Davidson sought a theme for a new exhibition - one that would incorporate the power of a unifying concept. His previous show at the gallery in 2012 featured a disparate collection of his striking headscapes. There were poets, painters, rock stars, and a few friends. These all worked well individually but Davidson wanted to do a show that embodied a vision greater than the sum of the individual paintings. Both Davidson and Sears share backgrounds blighted by sectarian conflict and it was not surprising that Israel was initially proposed as a theme by Sears. His mother was a Holocaust survivor. She was thrown from a train bound for Auschwitz and survived the war by being passed off as the daughter of the family maid. Growing up in London amidst Polish Jews traumatised by their war time experiences he admits to "a heavy and confusing legacy". For him the notion of Israel as a sanctuary for Jews is not an abstraction but a visceral reality. Davidson born in 1968, grew up in South Belfast during the Troubles and experienced there "a tangible lurking fear". His unease was frequently reinforced by the deaths of people known to him. Far from being embittered by these histories both share a passionate belief in the power of love and tolerance in healing their damaged communities.
Davidson mulled over the idea of Israel for a few days and then suggested that Jerusalem would be a less contentious theme. Israel is a divided country where many of the population don't term themselves Israeli. Jerusalem, alternatively, has a magical, mythical, and above all inclusive quality. All creeds, Moslem, Jew, and Christian are happy to be termed Jerusalemites. Davidson is "interested in the common humanity that we all share" and felt this idea could be explored through paintings of people living there. So Jerusalem it was. They travelled to the city last January armed with a few introductions. The aim was to select 12 subjects - a number with obvious religious resonances. The guiding principle of selection was to make the subjects chosen as representative as possible of that ancient city. Many of those selected would not be comfortable in the same room, and indeed one at least threatened to pull out when learning of the identity of another sitter. The chosen 12 include a professor, the Mayor of Jerusalem, a prominent opponent of illegal settlements, two Holocaust survivors, the founder of the Israeli cinema, a renowned children's book author, a Nobel prize winner, a hotel worker, two doctors, and a Benedictine abbot. Sears handled logistics and organised the line up in a Jerusalem hotel where Davidson took photographs and did the multiple sketches on which he bases his paintings. Davidson returned to his studio in Bangor and worked his raw material up into the powerful, sombre paintings that confront you. A decision was made to identify the subjects in the show by their first names only. Those au fait with the politics of Israel may identify a few but I suspect not all of them. The backgrounds of the paintings are neutral and offer no help, the names may offer some clues as to religion, but only the apparel of the Benedictine abbot actually proclaims the man. The latter was born in Belfast around the same time as Davidson so they had plenty to talk about during the sittings. Davidson is passionate in his antipathy to divisive labels and gets "angry and frustrated with our inability to see each other as fellow human beings".
One of the most significant moments in recent Irish history - Queen Elizabeth and Martin McGuinness shaking hands at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast in June 2012 - occurred in the presence of an earlier set of Colin Davidson's headscapes. Afterwards the monarch was introduced to the artist and brought on a guided tour of the paintings which included heads of Brian Friel, Basil Blackshaw, Michael Longley and other prominent figures from the arts. Some may wonder why Davidson hasn't tackled a sectarian conflict closer to the Irish Sea than the Red Sea. The situation at home is in fact never far from his mind. He is clearly affected by his early experiences in South Belfast and he intends to begin a project involving events "closer to home" over the next 12 months.
There have been many twists and turns in Davidson's career as an artist and he remarks on the role that chance often plays. Taken on by the legendary Tom Caldwell directly after art college his early work consisted of landscapes and urban scenes, competent but modest in ambition. He describes it as "genre painting". He also ran a successful graphic design company for almost ten years. He had his first solo show in 1997 with Tom Caldwell and became a full-time artist in 1999. His later paintings: the Belfast series and his Window paintings (urban scenes viewed through windows) were well received and he became a successful participant in the burgeoning art market.
In 2012 his work took a new direction - a road he is still travelling with his current show. He had met Peter Wilson (Duke Special) initially about 20 years previously and on renewing their friendship more recently he decided he'd like to do a portrait of the musician. He was an admirer of the music and also intrigued by his look: the velvet clothes, the eyeliner, and the Medusa hair. He decided that he wanted to make the portrait larger than life size - befitting, perhaps, his sitter's persona. He had been working on a series of large window paintings and found a blank canvas just under four foot square that matched his ambitions. This became the start of something big in more ways than one. He exhibited the painting at the RHA annual show where it won the Ireland-US Council/Irish Arts Review Portraiture award and appeared on the cover of the Irish Arts Review. Then Peter Wilson introduced him to Glen Hansard and the resultant large-scale painting was used on the cover of Hansard's best-selling album. It was also selected for the BP Portrait Award in London. His career took a sharp upward turn. Paintings of Paul Brady, Roddy Doyle and Mark Knopfler followed as well as a who's who of the Northern Ireland arts scene including Heaney, Blackshaw, and Friel. What was initially intended as a one-off became a new phase and Davidson embarked on a series of exhibitions and commissions featuring these monumental heads. Davidson likes to get close to his subjects and speaks particularly warmly of Michael Longley, a close neighbour, and Basil Blackshaw. He painted the last portrait of Seamus Heaney before his death and it's poignant to compare that elegiac image of the fading poet with Edward Maguire's 1974 version (in the National Gallery of Ireland) of a virile, ambitious Heaney complete with Beatles hair style. The latter a painting much admired by Davidson.
Visitors to the show will be struck by the sombre and reflective expressions of the subjects. The scale of the work (127 x 117 cms) means that this impression is magnified. Davidson's Jerusalemites are posed looking slightly away from the viewer so neither we, nor the artist, seem to engage them. He has captured them in the quiet moments of reflection and reverie. Davidson entitled a recent exhibition "Between the Words". When sketching a subject he usually chats away for a while but as he progresses lets conversation die and waits for that quiet moment when the sitter looks inward, oblivious of the artist and his activities. While Davidson is also interested in the topography of the face, it's that reflective moment that is the essence these works. That moment that in different people may induce feelings of meditative calm or gnawing unease. In either case it's a uniquely human experience where beyond the noise we feel more fully the fragility and transitoriness of life. T. S. Eliot took a bleak view of this moment in Four Quartets:
Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;
The 12 paintings are best viewed as one exhibit and would lose some of their power if split up. One piece alone is merely a reflective individual. Together they demonstrate that these disparate individuals, professor and plongeur, Jew and Muslim, share something unique that lies beneath the spurious labels and beyond the pomp of power. Davidson is eager not to be seen as offering any easy solutions. "It's important that there's no perception of being patronising. I'm coming at it as a painter, not offering answers". But of course the answer is implicit in the work.