Davin Watne, “If…Then”
Davin Watne’s “Hello Darkness My Old Friend” at Haw Contemporary is a meditation on darkness and visibility taking on wide-ranging subject matter including car crashes, wild animals, plein-air painting and cable television. While the topics might seem unrelated, they create a unique mixture that allows Watne to explore a world that is both dark and overexposed.
Entering the gallery, the viewer is first greeted by two paintings of cacti, one at day and one at night. Painted in Bolivia, the diptych, titled “Darkness is Only Temporary; As is Lightness,” shows the wild cacti adorned with a web and a little spider. A flower blooms in the day and closes at night. Another painting, “Matterhorn Inverted,” shows the iconic mountain with its colors inverted — the snowcaps turned dark and the shadows turned bright.
In the next room are a series of paintings of cable news programs. The chyron news headlines, logos and television sets flank the well-manicured hosts and their interview subjects. Many familiar faces are present, including Wolf Blitzer and Megyn Kelly as well as lesser-known pundits. A grid of 12 paintings shows newscasters making gestures and expressions, some angry, some confused, some smiling. They gesture with pens and are perfectly lit by studio lighting. These still moments, devoid of all newsworthy context, reduce the subject matter to form. Watne says he is interested in the look of these shows, and that former Fox News executive Roger Ailes used to watch his programming with the sound off, to ensure it had the right look. Unlike the perfection of a cable news set, Watne paints these pundits with a fast and fluid brush, attempting to capture their expressions and gestures more than their plastic surgery or designer clothing.
One painting, titled “Red, Green and Blue (Theater of Cruelty,)” is an image of a TV set. Studio hands focus their lights and cameras on the set, where two men in suits are engaged in a fistfight. This painting captures the state of modern politics — that anything important must happen in the media for it to happen at all, where TV ratings and social media engagement substitute for public opinion. The painting gives into a sort of primal urge one feels while watching people argue on television: “Why don’t they just start fighting already?”
The largest room of Haw Contemporary is given over to four enormous paintings, one on each wall. The lighting is dramatic, as shadows cling to the corners of the gallery and spotlights hit the paintings. The paintings depict isolated roads, wild animals, cars and car crashes. The lighting in each painting gives the impression that one is seated in a car, its headlights shining onto the scene. In “The Sleep of Reason” a dusty road is blocked by a single owl, its eyes glowing in the headlights. In “If… Then…” an overturned car on a snowy highway is being circled by wolves. In “Alien” a crashed car has a mountain lion crawling on top of it. And finally, in “Populism” a car treated with rust primer with a hood scoop sits in a barren landscape.
These four paintings are the exact opposites of the cable news paintings in the other room. Those are over-exposed images, everything made clear for a TV audience of millions. In these roadside scenes, there is a feeling of desolation, of being alone on a road. They are private experiences. Anyone can watch TV, but have you ever seen a mountain lion or a car crash?
Watne’s paintings aren’t dogmatic. They aren’t even overtly political, despite featuring a few politicians. Watne has captured a distinct mood so prevalent today. An expert class of pundits who have an answer for everything, a mediated world where all things are illuminated contrasted against the dark calamity of life that can only occur beyond the screens, where wild animals lurk and cars rip themselves apart. The mediated world and its “unmediated” counterpart, where chaos is still king. Watne might not have the answers our world needs, but few can capture this division with such clarity and darkness.
“Davin Watne: Hello Darkness My Old Friend” continues at Haw Contemporary, 1600 Liberty St., through May 3. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday. For more information, hawcontemporary.com or 816.842.5877.
Loved the review Neil, you perfectly articulated the mood and thrust of the work.