The Devil and Mr. Hyde relief print, acrylic, pastel, collage on paper, 50 x 39”, 1999
A direction that a number of contemporary artists explore is a kind of expressive figuration. This is work that functions in the wide area between pure abstraction and naturalistic representation. With skill and inventiveness, artists mining this territory can produce work of various personal intentions and meanings. The results, as evidenced here, can address a wide array of issues including memory, imagination, sociopolitical realities and perception in general, among others. The emotional tenor can be quite nuanced and may include the humorous and irreverent, urgent and questioning or introspective and melancholy, often in unexpected combinations.
We are honored to include an essay on Dexter Davis by William Busta, a long-time promotor of the arts. As a gallery owner, writer and curator, Mr. Busta’s contribution to the art and culture of northeast Ohio is immeasurable.
Childhood Migraine latex paint, black pastel and shellac on canvas, 28 x 24”, 2015
Extended Family mixed paint and drawing media on canvas, 75 x 67”, 2013
Demeter in Winter mixed paint and drawing media on canvas, 31.5 x 30”, 2011
Lost, I said spray paint, pastel, graphite, ink, charcoal and gouache, 30 x 22”, 2016
The following is an essay by William Busta that accompanied the inaugural exhibition at the Kent State University Center for the Visual Arts Gallery, a solo show of the work of Dexter Davis.
Dexter Davis: A Portrait
Always his eyes. Eyes that are penetrating; eyes that are spooky; eyes that are kind; eyes that are smiling; eyes that are frightened. Eyes that are on the outside, looking in. Eyes that are on the inside, looking out. In works of art, eyes often connect sitter to artist; artists to audience; audience to sitter. In the works of Dexter Davis, we sometimes find it is him looking at us, and then, sometimes someone else. But they are always his eyes. And his hands. Artists see their hands, watch their hands, direct their hands when they are working. The hands hold a brush and paint. The hands hold charcoal and draw. They arrange. They rearrange. From before the ice-age cave of Europe, hands have been the most elemental matrix in the making of art. We find the imprint of fingertips in the oldest pottery. In Dexter Davis’ works, we see his hands traced in outline, then drawn in; we see their image cut in relief in wood, then printed, then torn; we see where he has inked his hand and pressed it on paper, printmaking with his body; we see his hands printed from a scan, then painted, collaged. We see his hands clenched, reaching, welcoming, and imitating the shape of a gun. And then there are the tongues, and then, more recently, the teeth. And then there are the faces that hold everything together—the flesh and the spirit all in one, together, separate, edgy, aware, cautious, watching, nervous.
The work of Dexter Davis first came to notice in Cleveland’s art community in Cleveland X, an exhibition at SPACES in 1993 that identified young, emerging artists. He was born and grew up in Cleveland, graduating from West Technical High School in 1994 (where he studied with William Martin Jean) and then the Cleveland Institute of Art (BFA 1990).
He has lived almost all of his life in the inner-city Hough neighborhood of Cleveland, or in other places on the periphery of University Circle. Since 1994 he has worked at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
The art of Dexter Davis creates a fabric of his own, imbedded in association with the people that he knows, in the environment in which he has lived. In his art are bits and pieces of urban debris; drawings, painting and prints of friends and teachers; and woodcuts created to be printed, then deconstructed. He assembles and pastes into composition that’s so tight that at times it exerts a magnetic pull, drawing you close to untangle. All of the parts of his collage have meaning and memory, radiant with sympathetic magic.
There’s an important contrast in his work. It has the grit and grime of a life in poor neighborhoods and it has the luster and polish of contemporary culture. Influences are complicated—among the artists who he lists are Philip Guston, Willem de Kooning, Jean Basquiat and Pablo Picasso. There is also something of H.C. Cassill, his printmaking teacher at Cleveland Institute of Art and, through him, something of Cassill’s mentor, Mauricio Lasanksy—and then, again, through both of them, something more of Picasso.
The works delight, mostly because you can feel Dexter Davis’ smile within even when difficult or even horrific. It is a complicated smile, which acknowledges its formal intellectual foundation; which is wary of unexpected perils; and which is genuinely affectionate. — William Busta, 2016
Installation View,Center for the Visual Arts Gallery, KSU
Douglas Utter was born in Cleveland, Ohio. He studied at Case Western Reserve University and has taught at the University of Akron, Kent State University and the Cleveland Institute of Art. He has had forty solo exhibitions of his work in Cleveland, New York, Phoenix and Germany, as well as numerous group shows. He received the Best Painting Award at the Cleveland Museum of Art May Show in 1987 and has received Ohio Arts Council Grants for both his art and criticism. He has published hundreds of reviews, articles and essays in numerous local and national publications. In 2011, Utter received the Creative Workforce Fellowship from Cuyahoga Arts and Culture and in 2013 was awarded the Cleveland Arts Prize, Lifetime Achievement Award.
Unwinding spray paint, pastel, graphite, ink, gouache and collage, 60 x 44”, 2016
Duke spray paint, pastel, graphite, gouache and collage, 45 x 23”, 2016
To comment on the work of Douglas Utter is a complicated task, in part because Utter himself is among the very most eloquent, knowledgeable and committed art writers in our region, but also because his work is of a nature that often transcends language. The experience of his paintings is a highly emotional one, but one that also prompts thinking. Meaning is a nuanced and multifaceted presence in his work, a response from deep within, and a vital interplay between viewer and artist. The subjects depicted—in highly inventive ways that place great importance on materials—suggest issues of interpersonal relationships and individual identity. They emphasize the fragmentary nature of memory and the fundamental human impulses of hope and desire. The unexpected way that other various creatures enter his images, often as part of human bodies, creates a fascinating open-ended narrative the seems rife with symbolism. Specific resolution of these connections is left to the mind of the viewer. A deeper reflection on this work comes from the artist:
Altogether, I’m trying to build a bridge of thoughts, feelings, and portraits from my life as I now live and understand it, back to the mind of childhood and to my earliest interests. …If my work has a central theme, it is probably the mystery of human identity, exchanged between persons or clutched close to the bone. In one way and another, I’ve always tried to use painting to remember, and to reimagine, who I am and how I am in the world.
Our lives are measured by our bodies, by our experiences, by our shadows. Paintings are another measurement that some people make, by pushing materials around, however delicately or sloppily. Whatever the subject of my work, I’m also showing my hands and my hips and my shoulders clothed with the limits of my years, and my care or the loneliness I feel, as I push and move against and into the shift of things. I look for myself everywhere.
The drawings are culled from mental scraps of actual events, memories, observations, books, stories and songs. They invite the viewer to consider our shifting relationship to our history, culture and our surroundings. Over the course of time, what does our changing perception of an American mythology look like? And how does the persistence of change affect the images we hold onto in the face of so much impermanence? Each drawing contains a series of vignettes, which come together to communicate passages of a larger story. …The regular representation of sea and sky reflect my interest in liminality, not just in the way that a sunrise or sunset is liminal, but also the liminal way our thoughts and memories transition to and from one another. Because memory itself creates a strange hierarchy, the arrangement of space and the primary and attendant imagery in each drawing follows the rules of that hierarchy. The way we remember some things over others is not logical; it is mysterious. …I consider myself a storyteller, playfully and thoughtfully reflecting the minutiae and melancholy in life.
Amber Kempthorn currently resides in Hiram, Ohio. She studied at Hiram College; the Maryland Institute College of Art and Cranbrook Academy of Art, where she received an MFA in 2008. Her work has been seen in numerous exhibitions in the area, as well as in Boston; Detroit; Burlington, Vermont and Gainesville, Florida. This year, she showed at Bonfoey Gallery, Cleveland; Youngstown State University; in the Cleveland Institute of Art Faculty Show and in a solo show at Kent State University, Trumbull. She was recently covered in a feature article in Canvas Magazine and is in the collections of Fidelity Investments, The Cleveland Clinic and The Cleveland Art Association.
A M B E R K E M P T H O R N
Mental Circus collage, watercolor, relief prints, mixed media, 29.5 x 22”, 2010
D O U G L A S U T T E R
Mark Keffer KSU Class of ‘88
The open-ended narratives created in Amber Kempthorn’s labor-intensive drawings are highly reflective of the world in which they are made. Images of the natural environment are combined with numerous aspects of popular and consumer culture. An oddly harmonious balance is struck that seems to teeter on the edge of cacophony. These works say a great deal about who we are as a society and are created in a way that seems both loving and critical. How do we reconcile the throw-away quality of much of our culture with a future that is threatened by it? The deeply appealing esthetic side of her work offers a genuine prospect for optimism. Beauty itself seems an important element in the face of complex realities. Kempthorn describes her work in illuminating terms, especially her attraction to the notion of the liminal: an intermediate between two states or conditions; the transitional or indeterminate: