Solo exhibition by Ian McNaught Davis
17 March – 26 May 2024


Ghost Tree – Ian McNaught Davis

When I reencountered Ian McNaught Davis, I knew I would have to write about his work. But it was not the word I would be considering – he was my student in English Literature at Stellenbosch University twenty years ago – but his photographs. Seated in my kitchen, sifting through a cardboard box of images in a perfectly revealing morning light, if was not what was seen that mattered but the indecipherable. Photographs are widely considered to be concrete portrayals of the world – what we see, or think we see – but as the leading analysts of the photographic image have reminded us, photographs omit far more than they include, they frame and exclude – they are inscrutable. What one says about a photograph ‘will never be anything but … imaginary,’ Roland Barthes writes. To which Susan Sontag adds, ‘Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all the objects that make up, and thicken, the environment we recognize as modern.’ But it is Sally Mann’s view that is most biting. In her memoir, Hold Still, she writes, ‘Photographs would seem to preserve our past and make it invulnerable to the distortions of repeated memorial superimpositions, but I think that is a fallacy: photographs supplant and corrupt the past, all the while creating their own memories.’

Looking at McNaught Davis’s photographs, it was this resistance to revelation that surfaced. These were not images that tabulated the seen and known world, but which, through a curious ‘alchemy’, released the known world from the bondage of received record. Here I noted a turbulent sea, there a burning bush, the juxtaposition improbable and yet, in the mind’s fusing eye, a dissonance that gelled. More collage than empirical record, the images reminded me of Max Ernst’s view that his was ‘an artistic technique in which diverse pictorial elements are pasted together on a surface … an accidentally provoked encounter of two or more foreign realities on a seemingly incongruous level.’ However, while the synergetic juxtaposition of contrasting elements registers, McNaught Davis’s elements are not pasted together but fused through a technique that recalls printmaking with its aura of mystery – reversals, accidents, alchemical serendipities – for what the artist foregrounds is an etched reconfiguration. His visionary images echo William Blake drawings, the words from Psalms 42:7-8 – Deep calls unto deep – this because one falls into the image and yields to its elementality.

Or then again, as Barthes notes, ‘photographs are signs which don’t take, which turn, as milk does.’ Because what McNaught Davis has given us are reverberations, worlds that can only be held together, become one in the viewer’s imagination. If this dedication on the part of the photographer is vital, it is because we are far too easily trapped in the saccadic rapidly conjugated round of open-then-closed shutters, worlds fleetingly and inconsequentially absorbed, barely registered and yet supposed known. We see little, perhaps even nothing, a fact all the more terrifying in a world as obsessive-compulsively surveilled as ours. Which is why, all the more, McNaught Davis’s photographs deserve our attention. They are records of some hinterland, some inner world, where the ghosts of memory shudder, the fleeting sightings that flicker in a darkened room housed deep within each of us. Psychic extrapolations? Jungian exorcisms? Psycho-geographies?

If confusion persists, questions judder, it is because the artist compels it thus. ‘Sometimes it occurs to me that I – and anyone else living on one of the planet’s blotches of temporarily dry soil – am more water than anything else. Leaking, steaming, damming, fermenting’ … curdling. This, among many exquisite reflections, reveal McNaught Davis’s sensibility, a word rarely attached to an artist these days yet nevertheless fitting, because what we find, when we care to seek, is an echo chamber, a fusion, some deep congruence or mutuality that is instinctively grasped. We find and know ourselves when encountering McNaught Davis’s photographs, not because they express a generic truth, but because they allow for a fragile singularity, a ghosted world.

Whorls Of Prophecies – Ian McNaught Davis

‘Cycles’ are key, the ‘trajectory of the sun’, the roundabout churn of the human body, the mystery that makes our worlds as inconsequential as they are purposive. If ‘the way we talk of time is jolted with commercial efficiency’, it is also no arrow. Rather, TS Eliot’s more inscrutable grasp in his poem ‘East Coker’ in Four Quartets, which McNaught Davis shares, proves more palpable – In my beginning is my end … Dawn points, and another day / Prepares for heat and silence. Or at the sea the dawn wind / Wrinkles and slides. I am her / Or there, or elsewhere. If there are palpable connections in thought and feeling between Eliot and McNaught Davis, it is because both recognize that the official human record fails us, that truth is infinitely more obtuse, the seen world a profound mystery. In his photographs rays of light shudder through a forest … an irradiated bush in a valley’s hollow is accompanied by the haunting presence of a strange-looking creature … electricity shivers through a knolled flatland … a writhing vortex evokes a seafloor or intergalactic matter … a closely examined web blurs into dust … the particulate becomes nothing … an x-rayed horizon of gnarled bone … a vegetal hieroglyph …  a scored drought-stricken underworld … a cosmic congregation … an arid valley belly-up …  unstill still water … the infinite wonder of nature….

McNaught Davis’s photographs trigger other photographs, a collaged subterranean world, life’s hidden heart. Their quaintly fudged quality evokes the daguerreotype, the ghosted gray world of images from the past. What they are not is punctual – they make no claim to know and accept the world as we declare it to be. Gnomic, elusive yet pointed, his is a world that asks us to yield our guard, shed our constraints. His photographs are benign accidents and also divining rods – they stumble as they see. Titled In Borrowed Carbon, McNaught Davis’s works are currently on show at Glen Carlou, a wine estate and fittingly elemental realm. As for the ‘borrowed carbon’? It evokes a polluted atmosphere, human extinction, the precarity of being, and, all the more, the need to confront that which we choose to deny or lie about, or, which we unknowingly repress or suppress. In effect, what McNaught Davis yields through his images is, perhaps, the structure of the unconscious. ‘The image undergoes several iterations, gaining a lineage of images – each image undergoing its own life cycle.’ This intertext echoes ‘the brushwork of paintings … tactility of printmaking … grain and sharpness of photography.’ As such they are a hybrid shifted-and-shifting formation. The elements in an image are intergenerational, the source for a given record a multiplex. This, finally, is Ian McNaught Davis’s core point – that nothing is fixed, nothing wholly bonded or sacrosanct. Time is untimely. Extinction is inevitable. Beauteous mystery truth’s mirror.

Gallery Glen Carlou 

Simondium Road, Klapmuts, South Africa

The Gallery houses a collection of contemporary, pop and modern art by South African artists. Mediums are as diverse as installation, photography, contemporary embroidery and ceramics contrast with more traditional painting and sculpture.

Flotilla – Ian McNaught Davis

Delta Part Four – Ian McNaught Davis


Delta Part Two – Ian McNaught Davis

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