Mike Davis

Mike Davis‘s complex paintings of surreal medieval life, overflow with painstakingly rendered details, rolling pastoral landscapes and a well balanced color palette. Yet despite their sublime beauty, most of Davis’s work seems to hover in the space between hope and despair.

Ever present are curious symbols of mortality, folly and hubris which cleverly reveal tragic tales fueled by uncertainty and tension.

In Davis’s latest body of work for the show ‘Oil & Water’ at C.A.V.E. Gallery, he once again takes the viewer on a variety of ludicrous journeys encompassing brutality, belligerence and repression. As with many of his works, the symbolism continues to be both familiar and peculiar.

Davis’s previous solo shows; “Stories From the Other Side of the Bridge” at Joshua Liner Gallery (New York, 2009) and “Solo Flight” at White Walls, (San Francisco, 2008) were both highly acclaimed. His 2010 show at Fecal Face with fellow artist Henry Lewis, was the talk of San Francisco.

His work has been on the cover of Juxtapoz Magazine, and he has been written about in high-traffic, uber-cool blogs such as BoingBoing and Upperplayground.


Master of his Own Reality, 2010

The Other Side of the Bridge, 2009

So Others May Know, 2009

A Fair Exchange, 2008

Into The Wilderness, 2008

I recently collaborated on two photo portraits of Mike Davis with Jason Mitchell, my partner at Purebred. We have an on-going artist portrait series and wanted to shoot him in honor of his upcoming show at C.A.V.E.

To prepare for the shoot, I stopped by Davis’s studio to talk about the project and peek through his collection of unique props. I have been a long time fan of Mike’s work, so to be surrounded by his vast work and inspirational influences in such a personal setting was an absolute thrill.

Davis in his well-appointed library.

Some of the unique items in Davis’s studio. (A few found their way into his photo portrait.)

It is always insightful to be allowed into an artists working space, and given the lushness of his paintings, it was no surprise that his studio was invitingly warm and thoughtfully arranged. It was accented by unique treasures (some from WWI & WWII), a vast library, a variety of musical instruments and paintings by some of the most well-regarded fellow artists of the day.  The immersive space was further accentuated by rich walls colors, deep wood toned furnishings and a hand-stained concrete floor … yes, even the floor of the space he paints within was gorgeous.

In addition to being an incredible artist, Davis is an accomplished musician.

Davis’s work table.

Drawings lined the walls.

This new painting for the show is HUGE. The riser on the step is approximately one foot deep to give you a sense of scale.

The center painting with the snake emerging from water was a work in-progess. Even at this ‘blocking’ stage, there is a vast amount of detail in his work including color flow and light motivation.

Mike is a skilled carpenter, (he makes all of his own frames) and he does his work in possibly one of the tidiest wood shops I have even been inside. Like his painting studio, it is also filled with unique finds. While I was poking around, I noticed a bleached cow spine tucked behind some lumber and as I turned to leave I glimpsed a fiberglass Ronald McDonald head hanging on the back wall. (sadly I didn’t grab a picture of that.)

Mike Davis is also one of the bussiest, hardest working guys out there. When he’s not pouring over his paintings, he owns and works at the renowned tattoo shop, Everlasting Tattoo. People fly in from around the world to be tattooed by Davis, including the comedian & activist Margaret Cho.

(left) Crop of “No H8″ Photo by Adam Bouska shows Davis’s work well. (right) Painting by Shawn Barber of Cho’s session with Mike Davis.

Davis’s unique tattoo style is actually quite different from his paintings. The bright colors and crisply defined outlines are closer to Ed “Big Daddy” Roth than Heironymous Bosch. A brief selection of some of his tattoos can be found on Everlasting Tattoo and Ink Butler.

Even though he was incredibly busy, Davis was able to answer the same questions I ask everyone.

What artists or creative person has influenced you?
I am most influenced by German, Dutch and Flemish painters of the 1400′s-1600′s, but I also love the surrealists and german expressionists. I am very interested in ancient art/history-greek, roman, egyptian. When I was young lad I was really into the work of Roger Dean, Alan Aldridge, Mad Magazine (absolutely-my bible!) and Ed Roth.

Not including other artists or art, what inspires you?
One of my greatest influences in my work and for myself is my mother. Her constant involvement in one project or another ranging from woodworking, to hand-tooling leather masterpieces, to making clothing and toys for myself and my brother, to remodeling our home – the list goes on – has motivated me to try new things and continue to be creative. … Also creative, motivated people, and the need to contribute something to the world that will hopefully make people happy long after I’m worm dirt.

What is the part of your process you enjoy the most?
I love the first and last session of every painting the most. There’s alot of electricity in the first session when you see something materialize from a blank canvas-the last session is that satisfaction of completion……strangely enough I love packing things up for shipping-after all the important work is finished it’s fun to do something mindless.

… the least?
I least enjoy the middlepoint of any project. it’s like hanging in limbo.

If you were NOT an artist, what would you be doing? (not including a tattoo artist either)
If i were not making art for a living I would probably want to play music (which I do – but not professionally) or be a carpenter.

Your paintings are loaded with very specific symbolism. Could you speak about the meaning behind any of the symbols?
I don’t really like to talk about the symbolism as it is a personal thing that’s for me – i prefer to let the viewer come up with their own interpretation.

A few weeks ago, Davis came by our studio for a portrait shoot. We wanted to immerse him in ‘his world’ – which meant we used a LOT of specific props in a medieval setting. I had a great time making some of the pieces (such a carved wooden dice, and an 11″ ear) and a quaint medieval town with a sky and lake backdrop. (For those interested, Jason speaks a bit about lighting this background in our behind-the-scenes blog Fake Believe.)

Rachel Nichols helped me with the two day set build and we brought in a really fantastic crew to help pull the shoot together including a Gaffer, Wardrobe stylist, FX make-up and Hair & Make-up. We also had the pleasure of having accomplished documentary photographer Shaun Roberts stop by to shoot the behind the scenes. All of these shots below are compliments of Roberts. You may view an overview of his photo essay in Hi-Fructose or the entire set on his website.

Overhead view of the set.

The cast & crew on the shoot – from left to right: Charles Griswald, Gaffer; Stacey Ransom, Sets & props; Margaret Hasley, Wardrobe; Jason Mitchell, Photographer; Jihyun Kim, hair & make-up; talent, Jennifer Jones and…. the star of the show…. Mike Davis. (not shown, Rachel Nichols, Art Dept.)

Jason shooting the two different portrait scenes.

Yeah, Mike’s freakin’ rad.

(upper left) The Special Effects work being done by Margaret Caragan.
(upper right) Pouring my super secret blood concoction… psst, it’s corn syrup and food coloring.
(lower) the various props used in the two shoots. (Thanks to designer, Mark Kuerschner for the use of his vintage zeppelin!)

Mike rockin’ the turkey feet.

Jason, Mike & myself.

and lastly… the portraits.

The Barber, 2011

The Nobleman, 2011

I really can’t say enough good things about Mike Davis. He is one of the most talented and prolific painters alive, not to mention, he is exceedingly approachable and kind. If you are in L.A. I encourage you to stop by the “Oil & Water’ show at C.A.V.E. opening Friday October 14; 6pm – 10pm or the subsequent viewing that runs through Nov. 5th. Davis will be present at the show, so you can give him some well deserved praise in person. If you are in the market for a tattoo, he’s one of the best on the planet. I can assure you, the time spent in his chair will be well worth it.

Thanks for an awesome experience Mike! It’s been an honor and an immense pleasure getting to know you a bit better.