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Asheville Painter Julyan Davis Removes Mask From Surrealism With COVID Series

Matt Peiken | BPR News

Like many artists, the Asheville painter Julyan Davis didn’t feel much like painting this past spring, at the dawn of the pandemic.

“I actually got quite depressed because I felt there was this extraordinary chance for the world to think, and I certainly didn’t want to paint about it,” he said.

So Davis thought a bit, read the news a lot and, around June, began connecting the dots between what he wants to say on canvas and the times we’re in. Davis’ COVID paintings, as he calls them, are surrealist and mysterious, and they draw their dark, windswept color pallet and many of their old Appalachian settings from an earlier Davis’ series he calls his “Murder Ballad” paintings.

Davis’ COVID series fills the southeast corner gallery of Asheville’s Blue Spiral through the first week of January.

“With the COVID paintings, I took the world I’d been exploring in other paintings, a certain sort of somber mood and this distinct landscape,” he said.

Davis’ paintings look as though they were created in the late 19th or early 20th century. Edward Hopper is an obvious influence, with his muted colors and morose figures. But while Davis leaves his viewer little to smile about with the Murder Ballad paintings, his COVID series cartwheels from serious to whimsical to puzzling, sometimes within the same painting. 

Take, for example, one of the paintings that started it all. In the background of what looks to be an oceanfront yard sale is a woman, ankle-deep into the water, wearing a swimsuit and a paper bag over her head with cutouts for eyeholes. Next to her, a kindly polar bear gestures to the items clustered on the shoreline. It would take a conversation with Davis to learn the bear is pointing to a proper facemask hanging near a fur coat. 

“I started with this one with the polar bear and I thought, ‘This is great. This is pure surrealism,’” he said. “I felt quite a lot of the surrealists like Salvador Dali behaved a bit foolishly, but I have to confess that I am a surrealist.”

Davis laces his concerns of poverty, war and the environment into his backdrops but, despite the despair, he wanted to create work in his new series that would resonate with his 10-year-son.

“I wanted a slightly lighthearted feel because, in a way, they’re very tragic paintings,” he said. “The polar bear, particularly, is sort of lighthearted and reminds one of children’s stories but at the same time it has this sad undertone. It’s definitely comitragic.”

Matt Peiken was BPR’s first full-time arts journalist.
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