The last time I wrote about Ryan Thayer Davis, I cited a 2019 Sightlines Critic’s Picks piece in which Thao Votang warned that locals should “catch and collect a work by Ryan Davis before he decides Austin’s art scene is only hindering his career.” Much has changed in town — and in the world — since Votang wrote this, but lucky for us, Davis is still in Austin, and his work is better than ever.
A walk through End Hits, Davis’s solo exhibition at Ivester Contemporary, is a master class in the possibilities of color and form. From vibrant, wall-sized oil and acrylics on canvas to gem-like, sketchbook-sized gouaches on paper, Davis’s paintings absolutely sing with bright and curious shapes. His lush, layered pieces operate as a sort of playful, visual balm: they resist a single focal point in favor of the free movement of a lively, roving eye. At a time when so much in the world feels dark, heavy, and constricted, Davis’s bright and blissful paintings give us a glimpse at real hope and even elation.
Joy isn’t actually easy, and neither is color. Davis’s canvases are covered in rainbow hues, but he somehow pulls it off without the tangy yellows, fleshy pinks, and glowing greens dulling or drowning each other out. This is no small challenge. Perhaps the secret lies in Davis’s inventive, delicately-balanced compositions, where each component fits like a snug and unusual puzzle piece. Here he manages to accomplish another difficult feat: each part of Davis’s paintings complete the rest of the picture, while also maintaining their own autonomy.
One of the highlights of the show (and there are many) is that it evidences a crucial shift in Davis’s work. Older paintings like Ambitious Architecture and The Microchip in My Brain Made Me Do It (both 2021) are executed with a forceful flatness and lined separation evocative of a batik textile. By contrast, newer pieces like Attached to Being Alive and Cherrywood Taco (both 2023) have less rigidity and more visual depth. Their dense, fabric-like patterns and subtle shading give the newer pieces a greater sense of dynamism and dimension. These gradual shifts don’t keep works from the past two years from harmonizing on the gallery walls, however. It’s gratifying to see them all together.
Davis’s paintings are magnetic from afar, but they enhance our attention up close. There we see mottled passages of paint, funky textures, and brushstrokes loaded with two colors at once. The exhibition’s titular piece, End Hits, carries two odd purple splotches on the bottom half of the canvas, and Shower Goddess (both 2022) is graced with faint drips of paint that we only notice with careful looking. Surprises like these and others suggest that the artist is invested in making us muse about chance, control, and intention.
These details emerge slowly and sustain our gaze. But what keeps me hooked is Davis’s dance between abstraction and the figure. His busy canvases are full of curvy, clunky shapes that feel more biological, cellular, and even fantastical than what I’ve come to expect from abstract painting in general. There’s an unabashed interest in the senses, especially those that are connected to feelings of transcendence and delight. This connection to the blissful body, and to the artist’s very humanity, keeps me engaged. It’s one of many pleasures in End Hits for viewers to enjoy.
End Hits is on view at Ivester Contemporary in Austin through January 14, 2024.