Between Head and Hand, an exhibition of new paintings by Kai Samuels-Davis, will open at the Dolby Chadwick Gallery on Thursday, September 4. Rendered in richly textured, de-saturated oils, Samuels-Davis’s paintings are forged at the nexus of figuration and abstraction. Portraits comprise the vast majority of his subject matter, though the figures typically cannot be identified as any one person. They instead act as roadmaps for a conglomerate of inter-personal relationships and sensations, both visual and emotional.
By painting from photographs instead of live models, Samuels-Davis is able to utilize multiple images of the same person—or even images of different people—to create highly layered, dynamic portraits. Although some of the subjects are people he knows, Samuels-Davis prefers to use strangers as his point of departure as they allow him the freedom to transcend the limits of existing knowledge, impart his own creative sensibilities, and inflect his own thoughts, feelings, and emotions. On the creative origins of his subject’s identities, Samuels-Davis explains: “I like the idea of each subject being ‘born’—of emerging” out of entities that already exist in the world. Once fully formed, they come into their own and are “no longer part of any real world but rather exist in this solitary void.” His subjects, however, are far from imprisoned—if anything, they are free from life’s quotidian restraints.
In addition to referencing both color and black-and-white photographs of people, Samuels-Davis also utilizes close-up images of corroded metal, abstract swatches of paint, and distortions associated with digital artifacts, which are defined as unintended and ostensibly undesirable alterations in digitally-produced visual data. Incorporating these fragmented and textured visuals helps mitigate pretenses of overt premeditation, unrealistic order, or easy intelligibility. The Secret (2013), for example, presents a mash-up of blurred motion, “pixilation,” displaced forms, fractured borders, and “corruptions” of color. As a result of these combinatory practices, the paintings are reminiscent of Robert Rauschenberg’s combines or Jess’s paste-ups, though in a modified sense since Samuels-Davis’s collages use painted—and ultimately, re-mastered—proxies of the original material.
Samuels-Davis’s process emerges from a subconscious place: an initial action leads intuitively to a second action, which points to a third action and, ultimately, a final composition. It is therefore unsurprising that he refers to his paintings as distorted mirrors, for although they don’t serve as self-portraits, they are deeply influenced by and reflective of his inner sense of self. According to Samuels-Davis, this instills them with a therapeutic power: “If I’m stuck or frustrated I’ll sometimes paint a face that’s very confrontational, so that if feels like I'm confronting myself to snap out of it.” Despite their various idiosyncrasies, the paintings are uniformly quiet and meditative, a total effect encouraged by his choice of residence in Jenner, a rural, isolated town along the mouth of the Russian River. On the intersection of his living experience and his process, Samuels-Davis explains: I like to be in a sort of meditative in-between place. That’s why most of my subjects are solitary and seem lost in thought and quiet—I’m painting them sitting alone in my studio, not speaking and (hopefully) with a clear, contemplating head. The works end up being a painted diary of sorts.
While Samuels-Davis’s paintings encourage inward reflection, they also activate our powers of perceptions and acts of close looking. Many of the compositions—especially The Search, Beginning (2014), for instance—are punctuated by glimmers of bright pink, violet, and cerulean blue that peek through the neutral, de-saturated tones, stimulating the eye and recalling sparks of cognition. In addition to building up layers and playing with textures, Samuels-Davis has been exploring forms with greater abandon, following new and unknown paths, breaking contours, and impulsively adding color and space so that each figurative painting contains multiple abstract paintings. As you look closer, previous unseen layers of texture and color become visible. Ever-conscious of viewer engagement, Samuels-Davis explains that such experimentation “makes the process more exciting for me and hopefully gives the viewer a more fulfilling experience as well.”
Kai Samuels-Davis was born in Catskill, NY in 1980. He earned his BA in 2002 from the State University New York, Purchase, followed by his MFA in 2006 from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA. He has exhibited across the United States, United Kingdom, and France, and was included in Dolby Chadwick Gallery’s 2013–2014 group exhibition, Hello, Goodbye. This will be his first solo exhibition at the Dolby Chadwick Gallery.