In a conversation with artiste Alex Davis, Preeti Verma Lal understands the creation of grand models made of steel and brass, and the themes stapled to them .
Do not keep the camera on the table.” Gigantic roses were staring at me from an off-white wall, monstera vines stood as silent spectators in a quiet corner when artiste-designer Alex Davis’s man Friday spouted instructions. I picked my grey bowler bag and laid it on a large steel log-like table. “No, do not keep it there.” I was flummoxed, held my cameras and stood bemused in the studio. The man Friday returned hurriedly with an old newspaper in hand, spread it on the table, kept my bowler bag on it and smiled: “Tea or coffee?”
4 pm. A large skeletal metal clock on the wall proclaimed. That was the appointed time. Alex Davis was not present in Indi Store, his studio in New Delhi’s arty Shahput Jat area. A little while ago, I had seen his Once Upon a Time in the swank The Park hotel. Not the artiste, but his art. It’s fabricated out of steel and brass tubes. Wearing the golden hue of brass on her sleeve border, Sarah Stepahnos of The Park walked me through the installations scattered over the hotel’s plush restaurant and garden. In Once Upon a Time, Davis relives the splendour of the decorative arts of majestic forts, lyrical tombs and precious palaces of the subcontinent. Twisted steel tubes borrow from the paisleys, friezes and scrolls, lattices, medallions and cartouches of yore and acquire a three-dimensional life. I did not know how to categorise the installations. Regal opulence? Or, industrial chic? I was confused.
That confusion stayed as a continuum with the artiste. Davis cannot be caged into a parenthesis. Is he an artiste? A designer? A mechanical engineer who embraced art? A National Institute of Design (Ahmedabad) alumnus who found a seat in the prestigious Domus Academy, Milan? Or, a man who chose to meld art and design? I request Davis for a self-descriptor. “Artiste-designer. Designer-artiste. Whatever,” he utters softly. “Which one takes precedence?” I question. “Does it matter? Everything is art, isn’t it?” His nonchalance is disarming, his answer convincing. On one wall are yellows and reds in truck art motifs; by a plush dining table is a colossal OK sign in flaming orange; lamps look like pupa; steel orchid with bent stem is stuck in a steel vase; pebbles double up as base for lamp shades; moulded steel sheets metamorphose into a bunch of roses standing stout on a chest; chrome chrysanthemums with jagged edges nearly sway from a wood board…
What’s in a name?
Artiste? Designer? Confusion confounds. I dropped the definition disorder and walked into Davis’s Lazy Garden and gaped at his ‘HyperBlooms’. Then, ‘I Went Fishing’. Sounds abstruse? These are names of his art collections. But before he went fishing, the Kochi boy who has no professional artist in the family, but insists “art ran in the genes”, trudged a mechanical path — he studied mechanical engineering. In his mind, the art path was not yet charted but he knew “engineering was not my destiny.” It was not futile, though. It was in the Mysore college that Davis picked up the design idiom of “balance, proportion, structure and efficiency.” Four years later, with a degree in hand, he stood at a crossroad. Architecture or design? National Institute of Design (Ahmedabad) was an obvious answer. “Architecture is too structured. I like the freedom of design, to be a designer,” sitting in his studio Davis justifies. Another degree waited for him in Domus Academy, Milan, where he was one of the 54 students from 32 countries to study art in a workshop-based module.
Kochi. Mysore. Ahmedabad. Milan. Delhi was the next stop for Davis. And he has been here since. A road trip to Rajasthan to explore stone art, a ceramic stint with Fab India and then he “went fishing”. That was Davis’s first collection. In 2007, he created steel foliage in My Lazy Garden, where Nature is reinterpreted in the mercurial glow of 304-grade stainless steel — bamboo groves as screens, cacti on window sill, lily ponds as installation. Describing them as “jewellery for architecture,” Davis has shown them in various art fairs, including Salone del Mobile (Milan), Abitare il tempo (Verona), Maison et object (Paris). In Moonlit Safari, steel ox, antlers, zebra skin are laser cut to perfection as decorative artefacts.
For Dented Painted, Davis borrows heavily from the visual vocabulary of vehicles to create a series of limited edition sculptures and wall relieves. “Evoking the flourish of the street painter, images of the lotus with the curling tendrils play themselves in painted steel in large dramatic sizes. The fonts were developed in an indigenous flavour, combining popular culture, street graffiti and a homegrown language,” explains Davis. Right now, he is furbishing steel into 3.5 ft monstera leaves that will creep up a 4-storey atrium of a monied man.
Davis is incredibly soft-spoken, loves the metal steel (“graduating to golden metals”) and the colour black. The nocturnal Aries describes himself as a “procrastinator who works best against a palpating deadline.” He has no qualms being a procrastinator because he is still “ideating about the idea even when not working on it.” He has no favourite time of the day to work; no music plays in the background; not many books are stacked on his shelves. He needs no other alibi to be. Art is his logic. Design his reason. The hyperbloom poppies on the wall almost nod in affirmation!