What the Frame Holds
Bruce Warren Davis makes art on the edge
As we sat in his home (which does double duty as his studio), Bruce Warren Davis described a long-ago visit to a museum of aquatic life. Inside the hall, there was row upon row of Victorian-era oceanic specimens suspended in glass jars, with beautiful, brass tags, their scrolling letters articulating their Latin names. But here's the thing—all of the so-called specimens had been floating in formaldehyde for so long that they had dissolved into nothing. “So here was a museum of the entire taxonomy of ocean life, without the ocean life,” Davis laughed softly. “It was just incredible, the elaborate system of division and classification, which was both magical and horrifying. Only the categories, not the objects.”
Davis' fascination with categorization and definition extended well beyond that afternoon in the museum. His work, since its earliest iterations, has been troubled by edges and borders. Even Davis' first forays into creating with paint were quickly challenged by the inevitable point where the canvas ended. “I ran into the problem rather quickly that's always been an issue for me … [which] is: What do you do when you get to the edge? For some people a painting is like a window to the world. With my painting, it became [a question of] why do I stop here? Do I go off the edge knowing I get whatever I get and I lose whatever I lose? The matter of the boundary became the problem, but also the interesting thing.”
It was a question that pervaded professional life, too. Davis is an architect, but in 2010, work started drying up in the aftermath of the economic stall of 2008. It was at this time that he began to more seriously approach an art practice, using his background in architecture to inform some of his work. “Architects love to create diagrams and create categories,” he laughed. For example, delineating where home ends, and the rest of the world begins. “I had started to paint,” Davis described at that time, “But I wasn't quite sure that I wanted to make pictures, and finally understood that what I was interested in was the frame.”
And so, Davis began creating a plethora of frames that take many shapes and sizes. In his living room, a large, thin wooden frame rests against the wall; upstairs, another freestanding sculptural piece rests near the top of the stairs. On his work table, newly made frames painted in primary colors are laid out. Davis holds one up as an example and points out that on no plane is the frame actually enclosed. “It's not a fixed category,” Davis elucidated. “It only appears to be a division. There is the matter of building the frames, but also deconstructing them, or coming to some understanding of the extent to which a frame may only appear to be a frame.” It is in this way that the frames become all the richer to look at and discuss. Other frames actually box in objects, like a ball or a bicycle wheel. Davis posited that these might elicit some more questions—Is the object inside precious? Is it dangerous? “Sometimes what's inside is more interesting than what contains it,” he added offhandedly.
As evocative as these pieces are, their origins are humble, as what Davis called, “IKEA fails.” Unemployed, broke and bored, as Davis would have it, he started collecting scrap from around his neighborhood. “Like, someone put their busted IKEA bookcase on the curb and I sliced it up in strips and built one of my first pieces of art. Ever since its been a matter of salvage,” he described. With a ramshackle budget, Davis has been able to create highly expressive works that, through multiple avenues, provide inquiry into borders in their varying shades of definition. “I'm not entirely happy with where I've gotten in terms of resolving [the edge]. At least one thing that's great about working on art [as opposed to architecture] is that you don't have to follow rules—building code, human safety. … I see myself as still having a lot to investigate.” One thing that is absolutely certain of Davis is that there aren't many rules—and that's precisely what makes it work.