KHFA exhibition archives

Drawings: Lee Baxter Davis and James Surls

May 14-July 2, 2022
Opening reception Saturday, May 14, 6:00-8:00 pm
Gallery open noon to 8:00 pm on opening day
Artists will be in attendance

Essay by Susie Kalil

Exhibition checklist »

They have been friends for over five decades—each other's "point person" beginning in the early 1960s as undergraduates at Sam Houston State University and as they pursued MFA degrees at Cranbrook Academy of Art. Kirk Hopper Fine Art is honored to present a major exhibition of drawings by Lee Baxter Davis and James Surls. Combining some 50 works on paper and spanning from 1979 to the present, it is the first time the two protean Texas artists have been paired in a gallery show. For Davis and Surls, the landmark event comes full circle from the formative period to the latter years of their prodigious art careers.

James Surls, Dark Eyes, 2017, graphite on paper, 16" x 20"

Skilled storytellers, Davis and Surls have thought deeply about the forces, spiritual and otherwise, that connect people. Over the decades, they have created drawings that put everything on the table, pouring into a melting pot of personal and universal images. In doing so, they opt for a raw, fragmentary art that embodies their divergent points of view, as well as the ambiguities, contradictions and dislocations of this age of insecurity. From the outset, the drawings lay bare basic links between the human body, human existence and nature. Some works investigate the notion of identity and metamorphosis, a kind of reassembling of the spirit, the mind, the body and the drawing itself. Others suggest a role for art in the world and a set of problems for it to address, works that bring with them a sense of contingency, of quirks and commotions of our daily lives. All of them, however, convey an overwhelming sense of obsessions; it's as if they had to be made according to some intensely personal urge or interior force.

Confronting these drawings, you sense the recurrent longing for a return to something more deeply rooted, to something seemingly earlier and hence primal. Their attention to both the micro and macroscopic aspects of the world and their intuitive sense of those relationships, their rejection of barriers and boundaries, their commitment to a wide range of sources, has generated two distinct bodies of art that elude easy classification. Davis and Surls have created their own universes, according to their own special visions. At KHFA, you enter these worlds at your own peril. There may be aspects of life, of psychological and theological wounds, you would prefer not to know, and you will have to trade a former state of innocence for a new and complex awareness of unsettling forms and dissonant images. But in such worlds there is wondrous and erotic beauty.

The KHFA exhibition locates Davis and Surls working from thorny, imperfect, driven selves. It is centered on a building of narrative richness that has gained in speed and multilayered complexity throughout recent years. You don't simply "view" these drawings, but must encounter them, meet them on their own terms, one at a time, to see what they are trying to say, and what they are aiming to bring about as a result of that encounter. It's as if mark making connects them to the very nerve of their universes by becoming the conduits of their messages, their visions. The core of this work is in the psychological conflicts in which we are all engaged. With an admixture of hope and uncertainty, shaded by eroticism and paradox, Davis and Surls both evoke and confirm the relevance of human frailty and pathos.

Flowers, birds, fish, angels, eyes, boats, helicopters, guns, reptiles, wild animals, male and female figures, molecules, prisms and spirals—symbols anchored and floating, contracting and expanding. All of these undergo continuous metamorphosis of time and space, body and spirit. Through the use of symbols—the language of sacred art—Davis and Surls undertake heroic quests to uncharted realms. They function mainly as enchantments for your sensibilities, enticing you to pay attention, and then be led inward toward deeper and fuller dimensions of being.

Lee Baxter Davis, "Penney" Arcade, 2020, ink, H2O, graphite, 28" x 20"

Taken together, their drawings are permeated with themes that emphasize psychic experience as transmitted through the primordial, the mythic and ritual acts, referring to the drama of birth, death, war, home, sex, beauty and decay, faith and sacrifice. Their subjects extend to what they have seen, sensed and imagined to include everything from compassionate renderings of feathered creatures and voyaging souls to images of the broadest human and metaphysical significance.

A profound artist changes our lives and freely gives countless aspirations and consciousness. Wishing to function where art and life intersect, both Davis and Surls show us that the structure and poetics of vision can merge on a kind of secular wonder. Through drawing, they reflect the natural and spiritual world in order to heighten our place in the universal order. At KHFA, each artist, each work, responds in a flux of resilience, impulse and consequence. All, however, open new worlds, let us see invisible things, invent cosmologies, explore consciousness and aim to make the mysterious magic of the world palpable. Davis and Surls are artists who have followed their own lights and essentially created their own frames of reference. Their drawings catch something in the air, addressing environmental fragilities and presenting narrative entanglements that stretch across time, alternate universes and at least several multiple realities.

All great drawings instill absolute believability in us, a feat achieved through a visionary mind as much as a skilled hand. Drawing, for Lee Baxter Davis, is the life force of the artist, functioning as a resource and constant reference to investigate and rethink his prerogatives. His works on paper, utilizing ink, graphite and watercolor, exude a sense of drive or quest that strives to find release with a degree of animation rarely present in the refined skills of a traditional artist. For James Surls, whose well known sculptures have always sought to awaken the imagination, from visible nature to the inner eye, the graphite drawings represent the "bare bones" of his very being—the closest of his interior world and often the spark of the three dimensional work.

Both artists imbue their drawings with a poetic and moral truth, attempting to make some mark for the spirit and soul rather than exist as empty signing of profundity. Ferocious in their archetypal intensity, their hell-bent images hit us with the force of speeding bullets. Beneath their surfaces, however, lurk provocative often intensely probing questions about the seeds of human nature. For both Davis and Surls, drawing is a self-fulfilling medium, not simply an adjunct to printmaking or sculpture. Each uses the mark—tenuous, fluid, seismic, fierce—as conduit for language, identity and communication.

James Surls, Wave, Wave, Wave, 2017, graphite on paper, 32" x 40"

Line and stroke carry the message in drawing, the most immediate, least self-censored way of working. More than any other medium, it approximates most closely the artist's mind. The reduced scale, the openness to invention, the close physical contact between hand, marker and surface often convey a more intimate and revealing work. Drawing is always in motion, offering the more extraordinary range of possibilities. In many respects, drawing is the extension of sight, as logical and instinctive response to seeing as language is to thought. Accordingly, the images that arise in the drawings of Davis and Surls often hold powerful and personal significance for each artist. They are landmarks or weigh stations on a psychic map and, as symbols, become part of a glossary of visual elements that frequently occur in the work. The personality of marks and lines serves to reflect their personalities, while also involving us in the process of the hand shaping and making visible certain emotions and experiences. For Davis and Surls, to draw is to explore. it is an autonomous medium that reveals a world of untapped images, providing insights into the subconscious—of dreams and fantasy, wishes and fears. In drawing, time itself is the only space and it is alive, open, vibrating, mutating.

Traversing the mythological, theological and philosophical complexities of Lee Baxter Davis's drawings demands involving oneself in narratives that are as delirious as they are profound, and whose points of departure are entwined in epic visual spectacles. Davis is an avatar of the power inherent in recognizing the radical impurity of human experience. Packed to all four edges with incident, Davis's labyrinthine drawings are dominated by symbolic figures from his personal vernacular. Davis covers the entirety with precise black and white crosshatchings or jewel-toned washes, like meditative mantras that seem intended to lure us closer to his seething marks and high-pitched dramas. The artist Gary Panter, a former student of Davis, once commented that "Lee's art is a revelation, a falling away of scales. Therein William Blake and Hieronymus Bosch meet in East Texas at Lee Baxter Davis' kitchen table." Indeed, recurring themes include the conflict between the reality of death and immortality, the Fall of man, and the relationship between man and woman in a cosmic setting.

Growing up in rural Texas towns, Baxter immersed himself in the complex stories of Southern writers—William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor—the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe, and stacks of Post

WW II comic books, especially MAD, tarot cards and covers of paperbacks. But Davis's morality tales and horror vacuii are charged equally by vitriol and wit. Like his predecessors, Davis aspires hope that the imagination will triumph over all forms of oppression. The images are often dreamlike and haunting: boats, tanks, helicopters frequently occur in the drawings where they may appear beside crumbling civilizations or sexually-charged vignettes.

Lee Baxter Davis, Theo Cactus, 2020, ink, H2O, graphite, 27" x 20"

In Thin Ice (2012), a woman dressed in a skimpy slip attached to garter belts, duck in her arms, skates toward a man who conjures a world with paintbrush amid whirling clouds and ether. He holds a heart-shaped vessel from which emits a spiritual flare. For A Place, A Time (2013), a frontiersman strides toward the viewer, while a nude woman lounges with her arm over the back of a steer. In Burning Man (2015), a figure in military outfit brandishes a pistol by its barrel. Alongside him, a skeletal figure holds a baby on a platter. At left is a beehive structure with flowers, angels and a bevy of nude women. A recent drawing, Animal Spirit, explores our duality of being in both visible and invisible worlds. A ferocious wild boar dominates the landscape. Surrounding the beast are smaller, subtext narratives: an animal lunges at the throat of a fallen man, blood spurting into the air; a medivac military helicopter hovers in the distance—a kind of steel chariot to evacuate and restore the wounded. At bottom, a snake with the phrase on its skin, "Giving Birth is a Noble Act," signifies the cyclical life of animals, food, procreation. Is the holy spirit an animal? How do the two come together? As with dream imagery, the male figure is often Davis himself; his wife, Waynette, often plays the role of the female temptress. Figures, animals, boats—what Davis calls "cosmic ships" are all carriers of the spirit from life to death, thereby binding into his art the things that make up his life.

Davis's use of compelling imagery, a mixture of oblique and direct iconography, transmit powerful afterimages in our minds as his protagonists take us on a search for transcendent human truths. As a beloved and respected professor of printmaking and drawing at East Texas State University for over three decades, Davis's expressiveness inspired succeeding generations, including nationally recognized artists Trenton Doyle Hancock, Robyn O' Neil, Joo Young Choi, Mark Burt, Georgeanne Deen, Greg Metz, Katherine Taylor, Joachim West and many more. For them, Davis has represented something of a spiritual father, operating in part as a direct influence, in part as a role model. As a renegade, going against the grain, and seemingly eschewing accepted standards of high art, he also gave these artists freedom.

Similarly, James Surls's art has never followed compass course. Rather, it wanders and meanders, revealing an underlying core that is all the greater for its dualities, digressions and gaps. Surls's drawings remind us that we are but temporary sojourners on a strange planet. Anything can happen to anyone at anytime: lives can change abruptly, sometimes by chance, by risk or accident. This very "opening of the eyes" brings about an awareness of life as it is at this moment. Surls's symbols—the hand, flower, bird, bridge, needle, knife—evoke a sense of ancient present and future worlds. Like nature, nothing is ever still. Look into Surls's drawings at any given point: the world of it is growing, extending, solid and moving in time. Throughout, reality is in a constant flux with no hard boundaries, moving freely to the transformations of the mind.

Surls's unabashed sensuality and attention to process—to full throttle gesture and minute calibrations of the hand—give his works an undeniably tactile presence, while his fantastic and enigmatic imagery reaches down to the primal and out to the frontiers of space and the cosmos. Significantly, the drawings are mesmerizing meditations on dissonance and harmony. Looking at them can induce vertigo, as if we've been through some kind of maelstrom and have yet to reach a state of calm. For Surls, the body holds a contentious, fragile and elusive truth. He honors the body as our primary means of experiencing the world, revels in its infinite mystery as the vessel of life, and respects it place in the cosmos. It is a universe animated by hidden forces, abundant in potentials, but scarce in certainty.

In A look through the thorn tree (1979), Surls depicts the East Texas landscape with touchstones of his world. A church in the far woods suggests his rural Baptist upbringing. Within his overlayed profile, which holds a large mazelike mirror, are a felled tree and a child, who also bears a pair of mirrors emblazoned with eyes. Surls's alter or spirit ego rides a cow (the female) across a bridge toward the psychic scene. The abiding theme here is about the difficult life journey of innocence, experience and knowledge. In All I ever wanted was to go home with you (2010), a womblike form seemingly floats in its own separate cosmos, morphing and vibrating before our very eyes. Circles, antennae and multiples of loose, pulsating lines form a protective barrier. The free, dense accumulation of myriad graphic strokes gathers momentum and fills the sheet in a dance to its own rhythm. Surls's ability to make each gesture an intuited yet carefully considered unit of sublimated feeling is what gives the vibrant lines their hypnotic power. Writhing embryonic shapes and molecular systems are turned into cosmic personifications of our battles of the flesh. Here, the male and female are engaged in a fluid pool formed by syntactical energy patterns, reflecting the arbitrary nature of even the most solid emotional bonds.

in Me and Ascot Ash (2010), looping tracks and S-curves stream like rivers with luminous intensity. There's the feeling of a buried past, of everything—even the ascot around a man's neck—turning to ash for the sake of renewal. In Worlds and Waves (2016), black circles and dot patterns of planetary eurhythms—churning, seismic moments and nebulae structures—move the eye across, in and through the concentrated energy fields. Both may be viewed as psychic hurricanes revolving around the primary terms of existence and the passion they engender—male and female, reason and instinct, need and want, aggression and vulnerability. Rhythm binds the many strokes or paths into complex interweavings with counterpoints of skittish bursts and wistful lyricism. Again and again, however, Surls casts himself—and us—adrift in spatially ambiguous territory empty of navigational markers. In these drawings, he seemingly pulls apart the physical and psychological fragments of his world.

In 2021, Surls went through a period where he fasted for 24 days, each of the days spent sitting on the edge of his bed, leaning over an old dresser with his paper on top. "My time was given to what lay between my head and hands," he recalls. 'How does the migratory traveler thread the dark other than by looking up and out then following the Dipper's Edge?" Set in an expansive multiverse, Surls's drawings remind us that identity is not fixed, but fractured into a constellation of possibilities. Heads-Up, Shadow Bird, Flight Path, Being Me, generate subtle recalibrations that both revisit the past and surge forward.

At the core of KHFA's exhibition of drawings by Lee Baxter Davis and James Surls is a persistence to be deeply moved by the extraordinary capacity for regeneration, the vital force within. All of their works manifest a feeling of personal wonder—and conflict—at nature and our very being. Their drawings are marks of passage: intense tightly coiled thoughts of rapture and pain, of rituals enacted and life passed by, of dreams, people and things loved and remembered—a fount of anguish and a source of fecund mystery.

Lee Baxter Davis, Pillar of Salt, 2021, ink, H2O, graphite, 20" x 25"
James Surls, Bulb, Bulb, 2015, graphite on paper, 20" x 15"