by Jeffrey Carlson

Kai Samuels-Davis | The Forgotten II, 2014 | Oil on panel | 30 x 24 inches

For experimental figure painter Kai Samuels-Davis, the process of painting is so intimate that not even models intrude on his personal battle with the work. 

Kai Samuels-Davis, an artist born in New York and now based in Jenner, California, has found a niche in painting figures that are more about their substance of being than their appearance.

Kai Samuels-Davis | From Sinking, 2014 | Oil on panel | 20 x 16 inches

Samuels-Davis describes his works as having a "representational core combined with abstraction and orderly chaos." His paintings are certainly expressive, but that is not to say they are uncontrolled. Each stroke applied to the panel is thoughtfully considered, as the artist directs the viewer's eye by way of color choice and the angle of his marks. Though they focus on human figures, Samuels-Davis's paintings do not aim at a mimetic portrayal. Strictly speaking, they are not portraits. The goal, rather than a realistic depiction of a certain person, is a deeply felt connection to an idea or emotion.

Kai Samuels-Davis | A Drift, 2014 | Oil on panel | 36 x 30 inches

The artist requires isolation and intense focus to produce his (somewhat paradoxically) volatile and experimental paintings. "I'm so obsessive and particular about how I work in the studio," says Samuels-Davis. "I need to be alone with my thoughts so that I can focus and get into the right mindset. Then I figure out the right music to match, procure a drink to sip on, and pick up a brush (or painting wedge, as I've been using them more and more)."

Contrary to the practice of most figure painters, Samuels-Davis strongly prefers to work from photographs, rather than from life. Even when painting a whiskey glass sitting in his own studio, the artist will take a photo of the glass from which to paint. The artist also works mostly with strangers rather than acquaintances. His artistic decisions reflect a desire for distance from the subject, and it is this distance, rather than the intimacy many figure painters seek, that provokes Samuels-Davis's most thoughtful and successful work.

Kai Samuels-Davis | The Vessel II, 2014 | Oil on panel | 10 x 10 inches

"Typically while I'm painting the features of a face morph so much that the end result is very distorted from the source material," explains the artist. "I have the most fun when I stop thinking and go a little crazy, letting the painting take me where it needs to go. On the occasions when I've worked from a familiar source (even myself), I always have that person in my head. I think about them as an individual and what they might think of the finished piece. That always ends up distracting me from the process of painting and the work tends to stiffen and slow down. I need the separation from my subject in order to focus on the real subject of my work, which is more the human condition than the individual."

Kai Samuels-Davis | The Collapse, 2014 | Oil on panel | 36 x 30 inches

A model would distract not only from the process of painting, but from the very personal interaction he enjoys with the artwork itself. "I like to shift the focus so that the interaction is solely between me and the painting rather than that of the model/artist/painting," says Samuels-Davis. "For me, this allows the paintings to be much more personal." When the artist is working in the studio, it is a tête-à-tête, and he prefers it that way.

Kai Samuels-Davis | Days of Last, 2014 | Oil on panel | 36 x 30 inches

Samuels-Davis is one in a group of exciting contemporary artists who have pressed the boundaries of both representation and abstraction, defiantly occupying the nexus of the categories. Though Samuels-Davis's artistic expression is highly personal, some of the contemporary artists he most respects are Michaël Borremans, Jenny Saville, Eric Fischl, Gerhard Richter, Adrian Ghenie, Alex Kanevsky, Edwige Fouvry, and Ann Gale. The last three, like Samuels-Davis, are represented by Dolby Chadwick Gallery in San Francisco, where a solo exhibition for Samuels-Davis takes place next moth. Between Head and Hand runs September 4-27. In this article the artist is premiering several paintings that will be featured in the exhibition.

Kai Samuels-Davis | The Stranger, 2014 | Oil on panel | 36 x 30 inches

Without the exact goal of mimesis, Samuels-Davis has established other standards for his paintings. Unity throughout each work is extremely important to the artist, and if one passage on the surface of the panel distracts from the whole, he goes back to work on it. This meticulous approach means that unfinished works will sit in the artist's studio for months or even years until Samuels-Davis finds the exact combination of paint that marks completion.

That his painting process can be laborious is not surprising, given the significant challenges that come with communicating something very personal to the public. Still, Samuels-Davis manages to achieve an emotional expression that is magnetic and almost universally relatable. The artist says that viewers of his finished paintings often ask, "Who is this?" His response: "Whoever you want it to be."

Kai Samuels-Davis | New Beginning, 2014 | Oil on panel | 36 x 30 inches

Kai Samuels-Davis's arts education began with classes at the Woodstock School of Art and the Art Students League in New York. He earned his B.F.A. from SUNY Purchase and his M.F.A. from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. Samuels-Davis has shown in solo exhibitions across California and the U.K. He is currently represented by Dolby Chadwick Gallery.

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