T his November, a new selling exhibition of paintings by acclaimed Belfast artist Colin Davidson will be on view at Sotheby's in Dublin and London as part of Sotheby’s British & Irish Art week. The exhibition will feature complex compositions in lively, modulated colours, based on scenes from London, New York, Chicago and Washington. Central to each is a static image of the artist, looking toward the viewer with a smartphone in his hand. In some, he is lost in a maelstrom of reflection and refraction, in others his presence is marginally clearer. In one example, Self-Portrait (The Capitol, Washington DC), his image is doubly layered.
This intriguing series, titled Colin Davidson: Window Self-Portraits, builds on the creative approach the artist explored prior to 2010. Focused too, on shop-front reflections, Davidson's momentum in this direction was interrupted when he painted the musician Duke Special – the first of the large-scale portraits for which he’s best known today. A reference to his likeness of the late Queen Elizabeth II, (Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (2016), one of many high-profile figures he has painted since, is found in Self-Portrait (Great Portland Street, London)
Here, Davidson’s reflection is caught in a window behind which the late monarch’s photo hangs, re-enacting, through a chance encounter, the exchanges that occured between artist and sitter when he painted the queen in 2016.
While discussing what transpired to be a career-propelling turn during a recent interview in his work-filled studio, I question Davidson why he asked Duke Special if he could paint him. “I'm not quite sure”, he replies. “There was something about his new look. He had eye makeup on and dreadlocks, and this superb, quirky dress sense.” This suggests that the artist, who is both industrious and driven to explore possibilities, feels his way forward intuitively, and is open to risk-taking.
“I’m on a voyage of discovery,” he agrees, “I'm very open to the work leading me, as much as me leading it.” The result is a multi-faceted practice that also embraces 3D portraits and sculpture – all for him, forms of painting.
Davidson can now see connections between that first large portrait of Special and the 'reflection' paintings it superseded. “Maybe, looking at windows and at cities,” he says “I became aware of this stage persona as a façade”. This observation chimes with the interest in surface evident in his work – not least in the finishes achieved by varying paint applications, from thick brushwork and impasto to, in the Window Self-Portraits, unified coverage applied in sections in a single layer. This is dissolved before drying, using an improvised blend of mediums, to emulate the flatness of plate glass.
The concern with surface coincides with an attention to depth, both material and psychological. “People know,” Davidson stresses, “[with] the way that I paint the human face, there’s always an adherence to the honesty and integrity of what I see and feel. That often is a digging process, to see behind the façade that every human being puts up to protect themselves.”
“A sheet of glass is inert and lifeless. A human face is the opposite”
He also recalls grappling with defining what exactly the subject of the original ‘window’ paintings was. “It wasn't the bus going down the street as a reflection, or the person inside drinking coffee. These were just tricks of light playing on glass. The subject was the sheet of glass, and I became fascinated with the fact everything [seen in it] was treated as equal”. Again, this observation contrasts with his portraits, in which certain features - such as the eyes - are more resonant than others. “The sheet of glass is inert and lifeless,” Davidson reiterates. “A human face is the opposite.”
And so to the question of why a painter so concerned with excavating the nuances of a sitter, should suppress his own image within these new paintings. His presence seems to grow, shrink and dissipate over the course of the series – as in, for example, Self-Portrait (Regent Street) where it all but disappears.
Perhaps, such contradictions can be understood to both arise and resolve in Davidson's commitment to his subject, his understanding of its nature and his efforts to convey this by the most truthful means.
The paintings in the Window Self-Portraits series each have a sheet of glass as their main feature, Davidson skilfully replicating its flatness and lack of hierarchy - while heightening colour in the images that emerge, through its interactions with light. The phone screen too, is flat and displays scenes its user has not fully experienced. Having captured his shots in an instant, Davidson then spent months scaling up and translating them onto canvas, rediscovering, in the process, the richness within each moment.
"My best way of getting an idea out is for it to be bigger than me"
Revealing that his tendency to paint on a large scale comes from a feeling of being an outsider, Davidson adds, “My best way of getting an idea out is for it to be bigger than me, something I stand in front of and move my head from side to side to engage with.”
This manifests in these new compositions in which the artist is central, while simultaneously remaining outside his subject. He suggests that, in each work, the subject could actually be the same sheet of glass, brought with him from place to place. Asked if this glass could be a cipher for the self, he concurs vigorously. “I love that,” he says.
Colin Davidson: Window Self-Portraits
Exhibition on View in Dublin
Dublin, Royal Hibernian Academy
9 November: 2:00 PM–5:00 PM
10 November 10:00 AM–5:00 PM
11 November 10:00 AM–5:00 PM
12 November 10:00 AM–4:00 PM
Exhibition On View in London
Sotheby's, New Bond Street
Weekdays: 9:00 AM–4:30 PM
Weekends: 12:00 PM–5:00 PM