What happens when a former altar boy from Sandusky, Ohio, begins to question the religion he grew up with? For artist Tom Davie, the result is a compelling series of paintings that not only explores his personal spiritual dilemma but also considers the universal themes of faith, salvation and mortality.
A 1974 Sandusky church directory, like a yearbook with its rows of church member photographs, served as the inspiration and source for Davie's composite portraits in The Parishioner Series, currently on view at the Dayton Art Institute.
"The parishioners are members of the small religious community to which I belonged as a child and young adult," says Davie, who now lives in Cincinnati.
He chose the 1974 edition because it was the year he was born into the group. Davie was certainly active in the Catholic community — he attended parochial schools, served as an altar boy, went to a Catholic university and was even awarded the Bishop's Cross for exemplifying the Catholic spirit.
"I have a great deal of respect for this community founded in religion," he continues, "but my personal struggles with faith, religious power and mortality prevent me from fully embracing the ideals of my youth."
Davie also interviewed Catholics, both active and disillusioned, to place his work in a broader context.
The relationship between Davie and others to their faith and the church is viscerally apparent in his paintings and drawings. Elements of the ritual nature of Catholicism abound, wrapped in the tension between graphic design, computer-generated art and meticulous handmade mark making.
Davie began each painting by scanning photographs from the directory. At times, 10 or more individuals were layered into complex composite portraits. He then drew the image onto canvas, and using this drawing as a guide, carefully painted it by hand.
Rather than using a computer to generate the enlarged dot patterns that are a prominent element in his work, Davie painstakingly rendered them himself. The process was so tedious and demanding that it caused severe inflammation in his elbow. This ritualistic, repetitive technique parallels aspects of Catholic devotional practice, such as using rosary beads to guide prayer.
The series spans four years, and through the work we see Davie moving through his spiritual search. In earlier paintings like "Garrett. (Mr. Garrett H. Moore, 1974)," color is vibrant and edges are clear. The work is graphic, with black dots congregating to form the vague shape of a face.
Later work is darker, eerie and foreboding. Murky smudges of paint obscure the composite face in "Beware of Evil Works. (Mr. Clarence Meyer, 1974)." Varnished snippets of text from the Book of Revelations emerge on the painting's surface. The disintegration of the face alludes to a loss of identity under the pressure of doctrine.
Davie injected humor into the two most recent canvases, made during the last few months. He surrounded painted portraits of priests and nuns from the directory with simplified, iconic forms and placed comic accessories on the subjects' heads — a devil headband on the nun, a propeller hat on the priest. These tongue-in-cheek pendant portraits, with some hidden surprises in their simplified decorative elements, become a playful exploration of temptation and good versus evil.
Davie's graphite drawings are some of the most fascinating images in the show. A documentary about the Shroud of Turin — the famous cloth that many believe carries the image of Christ — prompted Davie to create these subtle composite portraits. Scrupulously crafted to mimic dot patterns in printing, they appear computer generated but possess a delicacy only possible from the human touch.
"The pencil never left my hand," says Davie, "so the angle of the lead wouldn't shift."
He also never erased and went through seven trial drawings before attempting a final one.
"It was hardcore," he says. Grade: A
THE PARISHIONER SERIES is on view through Dec. 2 at the Dayton Art Institute, where Davie will give a free talk at 6 p.m. Oct. 18.