I would have told you I know Tahquitz Canyon well. I’ve studied the jagged mouth from my backyard for 21 years. I’ve watched the shadow of the witch glide across the canyon in the mornings and have even trekked to the third waterfall to visit a former hermit-in-residence.
So I thought I knew this place–as emblematic of Palm Springs as Ayers Rock is of Australia. But then I saw a Tahquitz painting by Vaughan Davies. Here was a tilted slab rearing up as if about to speak. A spiky monolith, slightly foreboding. This was a Tahquitz new to me.
In his other paintings, too, Davies shows a side of the desert that longtime residents and connoisseurs of the landscape might not have seen before. In his exhibit Light in the Desert opening at the Desert Art Center in Palm Springs on December 15th, 2017, you can see Tahquitz, Snow Creek and a haloed cholla, all anew.
Davies is an accomplished architect and urban planner who came to painting as a respite from the exacting nature of his profession. He particularly likes watercolor. “It’s an instant medium,” he says, “and it doesn’t have to stand up like a building.” While his workdays are jammed with committees and meetings, in painting he is all alone. He can spend the day outside sketching and walking with no one to consult.
Born in South Africa, Davies moved to LA some 20 years ago and was quickly drawn east to explore the deserts. He’d grown up around desert landscape and naturally gravitated to Anza Borrego, Joshua Tree and Palm Springs. “If I could spend a year in Death Valley, that would be a dream come true,” he says.
Six years ago, he and his husband Barry Wiener moved to Palm Springs full time, and now enjoy watching the “fissures of light” on Tahquitz from their home. Davies’ painting is a return to his youth. As a young man, he studied drawing and painting with Lois Breytenbach and Luis Van Heerden in South Africa, then later studied at the Studio Art Center International in Firenze, Italy.
He went on to a degree in architecture and urban design at Columbia University in New York City. His design career has been consuming, as he collaborates with developers, cities and agencies on large scale urban projects such as Paseo Colorado in Pasadena and Union Station in Los Angeles.
These days he stays busy as the director of urban planning for the AECOM company in LA, but he’s finding more time for painting and hopes to one day pursue art fulltime. In the Desert Art Center exhibit, you’ll see geometric landscapes that hint at one of Davies’ main inspirations, Richard Diebenkorn. On view will be paintings from the Grand Canyon cliffs, as well as Georgia O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch studio in New Mexico, where Davies spent a day alone sketching.
The Desert Art Center is an artists’ cooperative that dates to 1950. The Center–at the entrance to Palm Springs by the tinker toy sculpture–nurtured all the major desert artists of an earlier era, including Jimmy Swinnerton, John Hilton, Agnes Pelton, Cabot Yerxa and Bill Bender. Davies recently joined the board of the venerable institution and hopes to bring painting and art to the forefront in a community fixated on modernist architecture. “We should be a world class place to go for arts and culture,” he says.
I asked him about one of my favorites in his collection: Palo Verde and the 12 Apostles. It turns out the recent painting signals a shift in the artist’s focus. He came upon an old Palo Verde tree at an abandoned house near the Desert Art Center and was moved to let the painting suggest a story. To me it looks like a committee of elders commenting on global warming.
“There’s going to be a next chapter in my painting, more figurative and narrative, ” he says. “I’ll be using the landscape to tell stories.” Davies is concerned about the Joshua Trees dying off and the proposed development in Oswit Canyon in South Palm Springs (halted by protests for now); he’s finding ways to address those concerns through art.
As I look at the paintings I keep coming back to the many views of Tahquitz: Tahquitz in purple, Tahquitz in blue, Tahquitz under a bubble gum sky…but always with a wicked edge. After so many years living with Tahquitz as my neighbor, perhaps our relationship had grown too comfortable. It took these paintings to remind me what the Cahuilla Indians know: the canyon is a place of infinite power, both for good and for evil. That primordial power has a new voice in Vaughan Davies.
The opening reception for Light in the Desert is at the Desert Art Center, 550 N. Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs, December 16, 2016, 6-8 pm.
For more of Vaughan Davies’ work see: http://fineartamerica.com/profiles/vaughan-davies.html?tab=artwork