Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA)
09 September 2006 to 12 November 2006
Since the mid-1970s, the paintings of Juan Davila have interrogated cultural, sexual and social identities, resulting in a rich, complex and provocative body of work. Featuring a focused selection of paintings, installations and works on paper, Juan Davila was the first major solo museum exhibition of this influential artist’s work, tracing its formal and conceptual developments over time.
Born in Santiago, Chile, Davila moved to Melbourne in 1974. It was a time of great political upheaval in his home country and the paintings in the exhibition from this period conveyed its violence and psychological turmoil. A distrust of nationalism and state control formed a strong thread in Davila’s work, extending to stinging and often hilarious critiques of the Australian political system, aspects of government policy and public figures in Australia and Latin America. The complex relationship between art and politics is intertwined throughout Davila’s practice, questioning both the impact of politics on artistic and cultural life and the role of art as an agent of social comment and change.
Included in this exhibition were a series of Davila’s distinctive and dramatic collage paintings from the 1980s and 1990s, featuring quotations from art history and popular culture. The artist’s use of fragmentation and multiple references questioned the hierarchies applied to images and cultural material, challenging the dominance of European and American art from the perspective of Chile and Australia. This also applied to Davila’s regular use of everyday and non-art imagery in his work, from pornography to comic strips to tarot cards, with an aim to destabilise the tradition of ‘high art’, as well as connecting to a history of hybrid modernism in Latin America. Davila’s major installation in the exhibition, Juanito Laguna, evoked a Chilean street market by placing paintings across the ground among cheap souvenirs, literally bringing art down to earth and highlighting its status as a commodity.
While his paintings have often fractured images into multiple parts, Davila’s work has also consistently drawn upon figurative traditions, from portraiture to narrative tableaux. His subjects are often people of ambiguous gender, mixed race or marginal social status, questioning public attitudes to identity and sexuality. Davila’s more recent series focusing on the treatment of refugees continued this approach, using the human figure to explore the psychology of current events and situations. These works, along with Davila’s recent portraits and studio paintings, also represented a major stylistic shift over the previous decade, while maintaining the artist’s commitment to a socially engaged art. Working in a mode reminiscent of 19th French salon painting, Davila rejected the cool detachment of modernism and postmodernism, infusing his figures with a sense of beauty, intimacy and emotion.
The National Gallery of Victoria Melbourne: 30 November 2006 – 4 February 2007.