Behind the Bamboo Curtain 

The subliminal world of artist and educator Alonzo Davis.

All thought is valid, and that's what makes living in America priceless," says Alonzo Davis. "There are some people who will argue one point of view to the grave."

The artist and retiring dean at the Memphis College of Art, whose recent collaboration with fellow artist Pinkney Herbert produced the colorful terrazzo floor at the new Central Library, is attempting to define his peculiar vision. He is trying to define it both by what it is and what it is not. "And I have to give it to those people who are realists, who can get beyond the surface," he adds liltingly. The inevitable "but" is only implied. This is what he is not.

Anyone familiar with Davis' work knows he prefers impressions to representation. With his latest exhibit opening this week at the Memphis College of Art, he hopes to communicate the feelings he has taken away from his travels. "I'm influenced by places I choose to absorb," he says. "Mexico, South and Central America, West Africa, the Southwest across America. Places where I'm fascinated by the architecture or the light. Red dirt is very fascinating to me." And the inspirations don't stop there. The broad-minded artist is likewise impressed by the artistry of the "Red Headed Stranger" Willie Nelson and by the musical innovations of jazz giant Miles Davis. The connection: Both artists defy categorization, and that is what Alonzo Davis hopes to do as well. Though he might not readily own up to it.

"There are allusions to ethnic and cultural entities that are obviously not obvious," Davis says, taking a firm Zen stand (no stand, that is) on his recent body of work. "It's my summation of the multicultural world that I live in. I can only create the environment. I can't give [anyone] the meaning."

"I'm not trying to make a political statement," he further explains, "but it could be implied. I'm avoiding the obvious and embracing the subliminal."

Outside his home and studio on Peabody Avenue near Cooper, there is a bundle of sticks that looks like it fell off a Led Zeppelin album cover. Davis is fascinated by sticks, bamboo specifically, and sticks or poles play a large part in his latest show. Decorated with media ranging from milk-based paints to red sand soaked in wood glue, they are part and parcel of Davis' obvious unobviousness.

"Some people have asked what the power poles are about," Davis offers with a shrug and a laugh. The suggestion here is that he's not going to answer his own question. And then he does.

"They are the vehicle for an experience. An experience like walking down the aisle of a Greek Orthodox church carrying a stick with a cross on top. Or like when the Ashanti people sit around in a circle and everybody is holding a stick. You think of shepherds herding in every culture they carry a stick. Parades and ceremonies that are religious in nature usually have someone carrying a staff. The stick has its own power."

And just why do inanimate sticks have power? "Because people put meaning into them," Davis says. "I just make them."

This isn't the first time that bamboo has played a large role in Davis' artwork. He's been using bamboo as a subject for painting and drawing for years. Gradually he started integrating bamboo into his paintings, and lately it has become his primary canvas.

"I used it very tentatively at first," he says, "adding it on to pieces I had done. Then I had a commission for the Atlanta airport and I did a bamboo and neon piece and that just sort of took me over the top and gave me permission to use bamboo more freely as a medium."

The juxtaposition of natural materials like bamboo with materials as unnatural as neon is just the sort of thing that Davis revels in. He adds industrial materials to his increasingly long list of fascinations by noting, "I'm into rubber now. Roofing rubber." But don't get your hopes too high. It's not nearly as kinky as it sounds.

"The rubber provides me with another surface for paint," he says. "A black surface." Davis also points out that in Asia, bamboo is used for scaffolding and flooring as well as furniture. "So when you get down to it, it's an industrial material too. Materials as primal as rawhide and as common as copper have also found their way into the mix, prompting Davis to ask himself whether he was a painter or a sculptor.

"I guess I had to ask that question because I work in academics," Davis says. "When I get home to the studio, I don't engage in making art arguments. I engage in making art. I guess [at first] I wasn't willing to step over into the third dimension. Now if someone asks me, I tell them I'm a painter who works with three-dimensional objects which are sculptural forms."

Works by Alonzo Davis are showing at the Memphis College of Art through April 15th.

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