In her 2019 East Austin Studio Tour Critics Picks, Sightlines writer Thao Votang featured the painter Ryan Thayer Davis, noting, “You would do well to catch and collect a work by Ryan Davis before he decides Austin’s art scene is only hindering his career.”
Like myself a native Austinite, Davis and I coincided at the University of Texas’s art school more than 10 years ago. I’ve always remembered his brightly-colored canvases filled with amorphous, energetic shapes. Unlike many of our classmates, Davis remained in Austin. And also unlike many of us, Davis has continued a rigorous artistic practice built directly on those early but solid experiences.
Austin has changed rapidly and drastically since I moved away in 2008. Votang’s comment made me curious to hear from Davis himself about how our hometown — now a crucible of hipness, industry, and gentrification — has impacted this steadfastly inventive artist.
Davis began painting with watercolors as a child. In our recent studio visit, he told me that he was first drawn to Impressionism “because of the way the paint was — I could feel it in the pictures.” Feeling paint makes sense for Davis: his lean and loaded surfaces exude a synesthetic tactility.
In middle school, Davis detoured to music, enticed by its balance between formula and freedom. By the time he was at UT, Davis’s sonic influences – including elaborate keyboard pieces by Bach and Beethoven – filtered back into his paintings.
“I wanted to utilize super abstracted elements to do something kind of similar (to music): to create compositions that were dense, rigorous, exciting, improvisatory, and yet structural at the same time,” he explained. “Color and shape were the avenue to do that.”
Davis’s paintings are delightful, dynamic, and hard to describe. His perplexing compositions invent strange, surprising structures that seem likely to collapse visually, though they never do. His squishy, sonorous shapes recall a more joyful Phillip Guston, while his breezy watercolors show the playful economy of Joan Miró. Hints of physics, biology, typography, and meteorology float across Davis’s bustling surfaces, with forms that morph between recognizable and mystifying at turns.
Although many of his shapes seem organic, even corporeal — some suggest toes and tongues — Davis’s candy colors don’t mimic much in nature. In fact, his hues are so bright that they seem to vibrate and sing. A former printmaker, Davis sometimes spends years building his paintings’ chunky, textured layers.
“Everything that happens in a painting is a record of its life,” Davis said. “A painting is done when it’s fully authorized to exist on its own terms.”
As it does with any conversation about maintaining an artistic practice in Austin these days, the mood shifts. I ask Davis what it’s been like to keep creating while so much about the the city changes around him.
“It’s good to have a sense of place,” Davis told me. Yet he nevertheless finds Austin’s and surging economy and shifting culture “pretty spiritually defeating.”
“The main powers that are changing (Austin) don’t really give a shit about creative people, creativity, or output,” Davis said. “And they’re also changing the big picture here in a way that’s deadening. Since they’re not sensitive, they can’t be careful. Since they’re not careful, they’ll probably destroy the magic. In the face of that, everyone who chooses to remain here has to fight for their zones of independence to keep on doing what they’re doing.”
And it’s not just Davis and not just Austin. Artists in many cities are fighting against what he calls the “evaporation effect,” where rising rents and other difficulties force them to leave their communities.
As his optimism flags, Davis takes more refuge in his studio practice and in his immediate artistic circle.
“It’s kind of a bleak assessment, but it makes me more invested in the work that I’m doing. I’m more committed to it than ever before, even though it seems harder than ever before.”
As Votang said, we’re lucky that Davis is here.
Listen to the unedited conversation between Davis and writer Lauren Moya Ford.