Retrospective a chance to look back in wonder at the art of Colin Davidson

ORGANIZING a retrospective could annoy some artists. Not Colin Davidson whose retrospective exhibition, Selected Paintings 1986-2022, at the FE McWilliam Gallery in Banbridge also looks to the future.

“No, it’s not getting old,” insists the 53-year-old. “It made me aware of a natural progression in the work and there are hints of what could happen. I would like to do the same thing in 20 or 30 years.”

Probably the artist best known for his portraits began by painting cityscapes. A series of tributes to Belfast occupy the first third of the exhibition and in a way they are also portraits.

“Yes, that’s absolutely correct,” he said. “It’s really interesting how I’ve mapped the city, which is a living, breathing thing, over the years.”

The first painting, Derelict Belfast Street (1986), shows a row of condemned houses. Yet the palette is warm, even tender, with a lot of pink, so the terrace is almost pretty.

“I was seventeen and it was an old run-down street that was about to be demolished. That was what the city looked like back then,” he says.

“But although I painted what was really there, I wanted to give it importance, dignity.”

During one of the private views, a friend of Davidson’s exclaimed at the skill of the small canvas.

Next to it is a large painting, Scrabo from Europa, Belfast (2003-2004). The familiar view, with the Crown Bar in front of you, has changed, becoming lighter, dreamlike. The color of the old gin palace is not brown, but pale cream and green.

Davidson comments on the technique, “Although there is 20 years difference between the paintings, they are somehow related. It’s something you fall into with an odd perspective.”

When it came to getting a vantage point to paint Queen’s University, the artist used a drone for the first time: “Normally I would be above view, but there was no nowhere to anchor me. So I contacted a drone expert who took a few hits.”

The resulting view of Lanyon’s majestic greenhouse and Queen’s red-brick buildings is affectionate. Yet Davidson makes it clear that he maintains an accuracy with regard to the buildings, built environment and foliage that softens the edges of some of his paintings of Belfast.

“I try to be topographically correct,” he says.

“These are my views instead of a painting with fluffy clouds and sheep in the fields. This is my Irish landscape.”

A sequence of canvases, many in acrylic rather than oil, that leave out fluffy clouds is Davidson’s work on the streets of London and Belfast.

Interestingly, the two cities merge: the speed, the interaction in cafes and the sense of life lived at a fast pace are the same. Stylistically, Davidson included lots of window displays and storefronts.

“The subject was not so much the street as the sheet of glass which could be the same in different places. I was capturing the (view) refracted through a sheet of glass.”

He adds that there is a frenetic side to the images. The genius of a big city encompasses Leicester Square and a recognizable cash machine behind the Town Hall in Donegall Square South. Among the scenes is Malone, a primary color blue with the outline of a bus, suggesting speed.

Next, you encounter one of Colin Davidson’s new 3D portraits. It’s a bit surprising because of the scale, but also noble for the same reason, and packed in a wooden frame. There is a reflection, maybe even a touch of sadness in the big blue eyes.

Davidson counters, “It’s your point of view, everyone brings something of themselves to the art. The viewer completes the picture in their own way, but that’s the opposite of an ego-trip.”

There is also, naturally, a section of the gallery devoted to large-scale portraits of Colin Davidson. He started working in this format when he painted Duke Special, and the 2010 painting is there. The musician has an off-center look in a visionary way.

Not far away is Davidson’s portrait of Queen Elizabeth. You can’t help but wonder if it’s harder to capture a paint sitter who’s done this many times before and knows the form.

“We all have protective facades in public but I’ve had the privilege of seeing behind it,” says Davidson.

“I asked for two hours and the Palace was really surprised how long I wanted because some artists come in and take pictures to use. But I like to see how people move when they talk.

“You also have to have a good likeness, and she’s a woman with one of the most famous faces in the world.”

The result is superbly recognizable. Two preliminary sketches, one in pencil of a serious woman, the other a smiling face, are as alluring as the incredible Renaissance master drawings in the Buckingham Palace collection.

There’s a hall of fame nearby made up of preliminary sketches of the greats and good ones that Davidson has immortalized, with Brad Pitt, Edna O’Brien and Ciarán Hinds in the line-up.

The Irish actor looks distinctive here. Davidson says, “There is something ancient, Greek or Roman, about Ciarán Hinds, a unique, rather wondrous and beautiful appearance.

“You assume things about a person as a result, but when I met him I found him to be a kind and interested person.”

Among the heroes Davidson has pinned to the canvas is Seamus Heaney, looking bardic and turned towards the final chapter: “I loved his poetry from childhood and it was a privilege to paint him. He even made us a cup of tea. Unfortunately, this turned out to be his last portrait.”

Another face that seems aware of the passage of time is that of artist Basil Blackshaw. “He was someone I looked up to,” Davidson says. “It shows him in the last years of his life.”

The running time of the new Chancellor of Ulster University is fulfilling and records the passage of time, in people and places.

Dr. Riann Coulter, Director of the FE McWilliam Gallery and Studio and co-curator of the exhibition alongside Kim Mawhinney, Senior Curator at National Museums NI, says, “I think of Colin as a storyteller. When Kim, who is close to the artist, and I were planning the exhibit, we had to decide what stories we wanted to tell.”

They felt that Davidson’s famous Troubled portraits, Silent Testimony, had had good coverage and had taken the Northern Irish narrative overseas.

“So we focused on landscapes and some portraits,” she says. “I wouldn’t say there’s exactly a romantic approach, but there is a sweetness.”

:: Colin Davidson: Selected Paintings 1986-2022 is on view at the FE McWilliam Gallery and Studio, Banbridge until 10 September. femcwilliam.com, 028 4062 3322.

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