Interalia, 1992–2019. Painted steel, 80 x 67 x 34 cm. Photo: Cameron Vincent, courtesy Close Ltd

Grenville Davey: Duality Paradoxes

“People are not naïve in the way that they approach objects,” Grenville Davey told British cultural critic Tim Marlow in 1993, “but there are other possibilities, however oblique.” Davey’s sculpture deals with those “other possibilities,” particularly the place of the human within the physical world as material fact. Emphasizing repeated geometric forms and the physical space occupied by the artwork, his work remains distinct from the concerns of his contemporaries. When Davey (who died in February 2022) came to critical notice soon after graduation from Goldsmiths’ College in 1986, British sculpture was receiving a fresh wave of international attention. Yet as his peers immersed themselves in figurative or theme-based metaphorical imagery (often paired with evocative titles), Davey stood out as a contradictory presence, appearing to reach back for inspiration to the straightforward literalness of Minimalism.

House, a floor piece from 2005, conveys the quality of sophistication condensed into simple forms that defines his sculpture. A circle of steel spun into a shallow dome is topped by a shaft of turned wood; attached to the metal by a bracket, it resembles a handle. Already the combination is incongruous—the form suggests a cover rather than a dwelling, while its seven-foot diameter raises associations with industrial rather than domestic settings. As title and object fail to cohere into any logical connection, meaning remains just beyond reach, a typical strategy for Davey. Once the probability of uselessness is grasped, direct experience of the object offers a route to comprehension.

House, 2005. Treated steel and oak, 63 x 220 cm. diameter. Photo: Courtesy Canary Wharf Group

“I want people to enjoy and understand how the work concretely exists,” Davey said in 1992, adding: “It doesn’t belong in the world, it’s part of it.” That same year, he found himself competing with leading object sculptors Damien Hirst and Alison Wilding for Britain’s most prestigious art award, the Turner Prize. The contrast in the nominees’ priorities was evident; only the geometric murals based in phenomenology by David Tremlett, the fourth (and oldest) candidate, came close to sharing the outlook of Davey’s work.

Even to art-world insiders, Davey’s victory came as a surprise. The Wall Street Journal asked “Grenville Who?” because Hirst—the architect of the YBA phenomenon whose ambitious works addressing love and death had shaken up accepted sculptural language at the end of the century—was considered a shoo-in. The jury’s decision revealed a fissure in British sculptural practice, with Davey’s success checking the perceived preeminence of object sculpture. The New British Sculpture, which emerged at the end of the 1970s in reaction to the postwar dominance of formalism, had been widely imitated and advanced in the studios of London and Glasgow and exhibited as the “latest trend” in galleries in Britain and abroad in the ensuing decade. Its original protagonists (including Tony Cragg, Richard Deacon, and Anish Kapoor) exploited the drama of setting banal or everyday materials, often appropriated from previous uses, in unfamiliar contexts, an approach enlarged on by the YBAs.

Davey, however, confirmed the continuing vitality of primarily formal investigations among younger artists. His use of a uniform color coating on steel, wood, and rubber harked back to the sculptural traditions represented in Britain by the so-called New Generation around Anthony Caro and Phillip King in the 1960s. In a laboratory-like studio that echoed the controlled and impersonal environment of the modern gallery, Davey worked on pristine materials, often combining synthetic and organic, to create sculpture possessing a transatlantic appeal. Davey’s first London dealer, Nicholas Logsdail, quickly recognized this quality, which complemented the roster of postwar figures like Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt, Robert Ryman, and Dan Graham represented at Lisson Gallery, which Logsdail founded in 1967. Comparisons of Davey’s work with Robert Gober, Cady Noland, and Allan McCollum are more instructive than with any British contemporary, with the exception of Davey’s Lisson stablemate and close contemporary Julian Opie.

Installation view at Lisson Gallery, London, 1989, with (left to right): Fat Edge, Runner, and Pair. Photo: Sue Omerod, Courtesy Lisson Gallery, London

The most recurrent form in Davey’s repertoire is the circle, single or paired. When line predominates, it is often torqued or mediated out of true in some other way. Self-sufficient but lacking stability, the circle cannot stand alone and inevitably becomes relational. Thus, circular objects lean against the wall (1/3 Eye, 1991), lie flat on the ground (Cover, 1989), or hang on the wall where images are traditionally placed (Labil, 1988). Of course, the circle also implies ocular vision since it relates formally to the bifocality of the eye (or to the unitary lens) and, by extension, to perception. In Eye (1993), a group of three paired screenprints, Davey offers repeated images of a cosmetic eyeball and a light bulb shape in varying degrees of fractal breakdown.

Rather than commissioning fabricators, Davey tended to construct his work himself without preparatory drawings. He stressed the belief that shape came from handling materials—cutting lightweight steel was like using paper and scissors, and pieces could as easily be taken apart and re-assembled. Only if he encountered technical problems did he consult engineers and fabricators. That his immaculately finished objects are the result of hand-making almost constitutes a visual oxymoron considering the antiseptic, machine-tooled quality they project. Yet that momentary confusion between mass-produced, machine-made utilitarian products and unique artifact, resonant of Pop art, is a factor in analyzing their physical and intellectual impact.

The mismatch also carries over into the relationship of form and title. Leading British critic Stuart Morgan, writing in Artforum in 1993, highlighted this symbiotic link between word (title) and image (sculpture) as “English to the core in its cross-fertilization of visual and verbal, as well as its social overtones.” Morgan went on to ask if Davey possessed the “potential for ‘spoiling’ classic Modernism, not in a spirit of satire but as a means of carrying on” a career characterized by “overtones of virtuosity, of an exercise that may become a tiresome game.” Davey had a different perspective, one that disavowed strict aesthetic aloofness in favor of the social and intellectual interaction deprecated by Morgan. Indeed, Davey’s approach to formal conventions was invariably nuanced and prone to deviation: circles, for example, are rarely purely symmetrical.

By Air, 1989. Hardboard and steel, 35.5 x 192 cm. diameter. Photo: Courtesy Close Ltd

“I’m not interested in perfection,” Davey stated. He often altered basic geometry, especially in the case of paired forms. The two elements of By Air (1989) at first seem to display negative and positive versions of each other, so that they should fit comfortably together into a single unit. But on examination, they will not fit, an inconsistency that brings the viewer to attention and begs the question of why. Davey spoke about his sculpture as offering an “inroad into understanding how things concretely exist.” Indeed, he drew parallels between his studio-based, experimental approach to form, scale, and material and laboratory-tested scientific theories that describe aspects of nature at the fundamental, quantum level. Danish physicist Niels Bohr regarded the “duality paradox” in physics as a fundamental or metaphysical fact of nature, stating that a given kind of quantum object will exhibit sometimes as a wave and sometimes as a particle. That concept of complementarity takes shape in Davey’s sculpture when structures are paired under a single title.

The subject-object relationship fundamental to Davey’s sculptural language echoes the basis of what was to become known to a wider audience of literary criticism as “Thing Theory” with the publication of U.S. philosopher Bill Brown’s writings in the early 2000s. Leo Stein had perhaps already expressed it succinctly in his 1927 book, The A-B-C of Aesthetics: “Things are what we encounter, ideas are what we project.” Stein, in his way, was paraphrasing Kant and Heidegger; when things lose their usability, they become, in Heidegger’s words, “objectively present” and perceived as totally out in the world. Davey had tuned into that possibility by 1990, with sculpture that confounded any practical value on the grounds of size, color, and material. Though the scale on which he worked is invariably classified as “monumental,” largely on account of those fleeting comparisons with the home or workplace items with which his objects share features, the generic physical immediacy that dimensions supply is best considered as a prompt toward the process of enquiry and doubt that establishes “thingness.”

Well, 1992. Rusted steel and oil, 2 parts, 250 x 132 cm. each. Photo: Courtesy Chisenhale Gallery, London

Well (1992) presents a prime example. Inexpressive and beyond the reach of facile interpretation, it consists of two columnar steel forms with circular bases, each eight feet tall. The tops and bottoms of both pieces have identical rims, and a single seam of flattened fastenings runs down their rust-colored and somewhat streaked metal flanks. If a comparison had to be made with the real world, these simple structures might bring to mind a container, like an oil drum or miniature silo. Whereas one element of Well has a regular profile, the other element is dented, in a formal departure from symmetry, as if giant pincers had attempted to crush the hollow object from the side.

Comparative scale between objects was also important to Davey. Measurements are finely tuned, and his sculptures feel carefully calibrated in relation to each other and their exact placings on wall and floor. Titles such as Cover (1986–87), Vent (1987), Grey Seal (1987), Button (1988), and Runner (1989) play on circularity designed for human interaction—turning, lifting, pushing—that is never fulfilled. The pastel colors of these works further evoke functional items in the home, which their scale simultaneously contradicts. Sprayed on the surface, a uniform, uninflected powder tone “softens” their unyielding metallic quality. The enduring strength of Davey’s work lies in its refusal to conform to the language of description. Simple but never simplistic, it repudiates the similes that abound in attempts to pin down an interpretation.

Grey Seal, 1987. Painted steel, steel tube, rubber, and cord, 33 x 124.5 cm. diameter. Photo: Courtesy Lisson Gallery London Ltd

His sculptures can also demonstrate “self-duality,” in which the form displays negative and positive versions of a shared feature found in two objects. One half of a couple of untitled works from Davey’s 2012 collaboration with the Centre for Research in String Theory at Queen Mary University of London resembles a donut, except that the hole has not been completely pushed through and remains as a knob or nose. Its partner takes the exact same form but in negative to the other’s positive. Thought of sculpturally, one form would constitute the mold for the other. In physics, the inversion visualizes duality, with one side inferred from the other, even if one of them cannot be seen.

That project, supported by the grant-making foundation endowed by sculptor Henry Moore, was greeted by scientists as echoing in sculptural terms how they thought about physics. It also exemplified the collaborative way in which Davey liked to gather viewpoints from people of diverse backgrounds and perceptions. In Inter Alia (2012), his public commission for London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, a 90-meter-long wall contains 61 cast brass circular markers that protrude like eyes or the eyepieces of microscopes. These forms contain the fingerprints of local Newham residents, gathered during a project that addressed the dramatic transformation of this formerly depressed area of the city in the lead-up to the Olympic Games. With elements as uniquely individual as DNA, the wall preserves traces of the community that had called the district home.

Davey once referred to his sculpture as a “celebration of those daily, sometimes mundane things you might come across; it’s a kind of a double-take quite often”—a statement that helps to explain the suddenness with which objects assert themselves. The contingency of experience, rather than language, establishes the physicality of things. Davey’s work reminds us that, in the setting created by his objects, the body is merely a thing among things.