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Scott Davis: Seeing an IFO

IFO (Arrival), the big (six by nine feet) 2004  Scott Davis painting often on view at the Portland Museum of Art, is a difficult one and takes some getting used to. Davis likes to set his own terms, and you have to join in his visual dissertation to get the full flavor of his work.

It seems simple enough, just a large blue field with the image of two flat discs floating on it, one smaller disc stuck to the other, larger one. The edges of the discs are black, and the surfaces are a brilliant orange red.

That's of course if they are discs, with actual edges and surfaces. They may not be, and that's part of the key to unlocking Davis's nearly hermetic intentions. Looked at in one way, we have some enigmatic object floating on a uniform blue sky.

It's not that easy. Davis has slightly skewed the perspective of the discs, enough so we also are forced to read them just colored shapes, which of course is what they really are, even if we choose to read them as discs. The tension between the two readings goes directly to the heart of the modernist enterprise as it occurs in visual art.  There's no real space in any painting, representational or not. There's just the support and the paint on it.

By choosing a deliberate awkwardness between, on the one hand, the illusion of space with a big bright dingus apparently headed toward us, and on the other hand, a large blue painting with a black and red center that signifies nothing other than itself, Davis creates an existential discomfort and doesn't solve it for us. The painting is neither, or both. There's no way to tell.

The references are very little help. The blue  field isn't really a sky, but it is definitely a field. In physics, a field is any area with similar properties, like a magnetic or gravitational field. In painting, a field is the background color. Davis doesn't care to extend to his viewers the comfort of definitive references, so we don't know which this is. The commonplace constructs we use to filter our experience the world (‘I'm standing on the ground'  and not ‘I'm held here to the earth because of its gravity field') are, for the moments we encounter this picture, called into question. Davis seems to saying ‘If we really pay attention, we will know that we don't know much.'

That's a disquieting experience, and it gives the painting its resonance.

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