After exploring the world in search of the greatest universal sites, both man-made and natural, Lynn Davis ends the monumental cycle she began in 1986 with an homage to the time-old civilization of China. The China series captures the many faces of an eminently complex culture: the transcendental grace of Buddhism, the power and strength of a great empire, the fragile delicacy of the landscapes, and an esthetic of flamboyance. The photographer’s explorations took her from the edges of the Gobi Desert to the Southern section of the Yangtze River. Guided by the missionary figure of Xuanzang, who made the pilgrimage from China to India in the 7th century to carry back the original teachings of Buddha, Davis traveled along the Chinese portion of the Northern Silk Road. The encounters with the many religious treasures of the region where both Chinese Buddhism and Islam flourished were both artistic and spiritual. The sites depicted include the celebrated Buddhist grottoes of the Silk Road and the Islamic masterpiece of the Emin Minaret in Turpan. Pursuing her travels to the ancient capitals of the Empire, she sought out the relics of the Tang and Sung dynasties and of China’s classic age. The sense of abstraction, which is a hallmark of the artist’s style, informs her vision both of imperial splendors and of religious monuments, bringing out the bold modernism of their lines as well as evoking the presence of transcendence. At the same time, an elegiac tone colors certain images of vestiges now swept by the desert sands, or lost in the middle of a rural landscape. The same holds true of the photographs of the Three Gorges Valley of the Yangtze River, a natural marvel that is about to be flooded by a gigantic dam project. Melancholy and dream-like, Davis’s misty pictures of the Yangtze are imbued with the feeling of Chinese painting.
The art and culture of China greatly influenced Davis’s manner in this series and led her to remarkable stylistic innovations, such as the printing of toned negative images. The warm density of these gold-toned photographs recalls the precious productions of early photography. A more direct inspiration is the Chinese tradition of ink-rubbings, a process in which stone reliefs were copied by inking a sheet of paper tamped onto the stone. The “negative” image thus obtained had a strikingly photographic quality. Inspired as well by Chinese horizontal scroll paintings, Davis has composed photographic triptychs, while the tradition of hanging scrolls, itself evolved from Buddhist temple banners, led to the composition of vertical panels, which the artist refers to as compilation pictures. These compilation pictures are an assemblage of one repeated photograph. Tied to the conceptual form of serial repetition, they evoke at the same time the modernist archetype of the grid and the meditative abstraction of the 1000 Buddha walls found in the ancient caves of the Silk Road. They are emblematic of the artist’s vision, which seeks, in the hieratic lines of monumental constructions, the purified expression of an absolute.
Lynn Davis (American, born 1944) received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1970, and then trained with Berenice Abbott in New York. In 1979, she had her first exhibition at the International Center of Photography (New York) alongside her close friend Robert Mapplethorpe. Her work underwent a dramatic shift after her first trip to Greenland in 1986 when she gave up the representation of the human form for landscape. Setting herself in the grand tradition of nineteenth century landscape photography, and driven by an encyclopedic desire to record the natural and architectural monuments of the world, Davis has since documented the pyramids of Egypt, the ancient architectural ruins of Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, India, Italy, and of the Middle East (Israel, Syria, Jordan, Turkey and Yemen), as well as mythical natural wonders, including the Grand Geyser in Yellowstone and Wave Rock in Australia. Davis’s exploration of the African continent (including Mali, Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Ghana, Tanzania, and a second look at Egypt) resulted in the solo show Africa held at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson in 1999. Selections of the African images appeared the same year in Wonders of the African World by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. 1999 also saw the publication of Davis’s second monograph, the classic Monument, released by Arena Editions.
Davis’s photographs have been exhibited internationally and collected widely. Her work appears in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, and the J. Paul Getty Museum which held an exhibition of Davis’s prints in 1999. She has received several commissions from public and private institutions such as the Lannan Foundation – to work on an American project -, the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, and the Nature Conservancy – to produce a photographic survey of the High Plateau of Utah. Currently her work is on view at the World Monuments Fund Gallery through May 21st to benefit the non-profit organization’s conservation of historic works of art and architecture. Davis lives and works in New York.