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"Gravity's Rainbows" by Dave Hickey

Young artists have sharper memories than their seniors in the art world. As a consequence, Tim Bavington’s paintings always come as a bit of a surprise to his elders. Their renewal, refurbishment, and re- conceptualization of a traditional modernist painting format (the stripe) makes them seem at once joltingly new and uneasily familiar—for no better reason than that most young artists begin their careers unpersuaded by the faith of their fathers. Thus, empowered by youthful contempt for received ideas, they begin to make a future for themselves by rummaging through the past by way of reinventing it—hoping, at least, to discover some clean, unsullied, historical ground from which they might embark. So they look back for that magical moment “right before it started sucking,” a year or a decade, some nadir of current fashion from which they shake the dust. When they find it, and they invariably do, they endow the moment with talismanic significance and proceed from there.

For Tim Bavington, that moment is the year 1966—the year he was born in the flatlands of East Anglia—the year the England won the World Cup—the foaming crest of the days when Bridget Riley, Mod lifestyles, Pucci threads, and youthful impudence achieved their ascendancy in swinging London. It was also the year before Bavington and his parents moved from London to Santa Monica, California for a short sojourn, then back to the UK. Bavington would return again to Southern California when he was eighteen, and from there moved to Las Vegas where he lives today. During these peregrinations, Swinging London in 1966 would gradually emerge as the artist’s ground zero, as the primal site of an evolving myth. Today, the gleaming icon of that special moment takes pride of place in artist’s studio: an absolutely pristine, sky blue and antique white, 1964 Lambretta, Series III Li I50, mod scooter—a Quadrophrenia-mobile.

The Lambretta scooter, traded for a painting, stands on a little pedestal in Bavington’s studio as a hedge against solemnity and carelessness—and as a hedge against nostalgia, as well, since the scooter’s hard reality only marks the starting point of Bavington’s mythical gloria mundi. Over the years of drift, this personal Oz has taken on new attributes: the softness of California air, the neon glamour of the Las Vegas Strip, and the smoky noir of jazz clubs. It has assimilated the zip of Warhol’s “American color,” the ping of Paul Smith’s trippy stripes, and the gloss of Oasis’ rock and roll. So the scooter stands as a reminder, not only of the past’s utility, but of its terrible lost-ness as well, and the visible signature of this lost-ness in Bavington’s art has always been “the blur”—the artist’s singular debt to California haze and to the artist Edward Ruscha. In fact, the first instance of the blur in Bavington’s painting occurs in an elegant forgery of a painting by Edward Ruscha that Bavington made to hang in his living room, to serve, like the Lambretta, as an icon of aspiration.

Ruscha’s painting is titled in police-call diction, “Dixie Red Seville Vegas Plates,” and it is, itself, a testament to the blur of memory and influ- ence. Three points of origin, Dixie, Seville, and Vegas are blurred into one imaginary, automotive object speeding through an atmosphere that hovers between remembrance and forgetfulness. Around this time, Bavington’s original works begin to evoke their own blur by outsourcing it. These works were small monochromes paintings on panels, in shades of white, whose sides are beveled back to the wall. The invisible, beveled sides of the panels are painted in luminous reds and blues so, when they are lighted, the white rectangles float in blurry halos of color that insist on the transience, the radical historicity, of our experience. Bavington’s next paintings, airbrushed, grey-blue rectangles with hazy, horizontal stripes, evoked television screens with the horizontal hold askew, and did so a bit too readily for the artist’s taste, so this overt narrative was hastily dispensed with.

The “origin story” of Bavington’s next paintings, however, speaks volumes about the high-hearted spirit of his practice. These “fuzzy stripe” paintings began in a conversation with the painter David Reed, who was talking about discovering his aspiration to be a “bedroom painter.” The term, Reed said, originated with the painter, John Mclaughlin, who, according to his dealer, Nicholas Wilder, always insisted on his wish to be a “bedroom painter” as opposed to a “living room painter” or a “museum painter.” Not long after this, Bavington came across a gallery announcement from Charles Cowles for a show of Gene Davis’ paintings. The Davis’ painting that was reproduced on the invitation card was “Boudoir Painting” from 1965. The confluence of Reed, McLaughlin, Davis and 1965, led Bavington to decide that he “could make a more glam, sexier and, sleazier version of Davis’ painting with a spray gun.” And he could. And something came together. Immediately and involuntarily, the stripes evoked a bouquet of references: colored fountains, ice curtains, neon in the mist, synthetic borealis—gravity’s rainbows, for lack of a better word.

Reviewing Bavington’s first show of the stripe paintings in Art Issues Magazine, David Pagel “got it” when he wrote that: “In a sense, Bavington does for stripe paintings what Playboy did for pornography. Preferring the suggestiveness of the air brush to the explicitness of the starkly developed close-up, his soft rendition of hard edged abstraction leaves room for the imagination.” For Bavington, inventing this vertical blurred format amounted to an improvisational synthesis, an event comparable to inventing the sonnet, because within this infinitely variable format, everything he valued could flourish. The high and the low, the European and the American, the Mod and the Rock, the High Modern and the Post Conceptual could coexist happily in rigorous instability.

More generally, Bavington’s stripe paintings put paid to the “post- modern” myth that “abstraction” is somehow an exclusionary, elitist practice by proving the reverse and locating the idea of abstraction at the heart of democratic invention. From Barnett Newman to the bar code, from Thomas Jefferson’s grid to the Nike swoosh, from the basketball court to the beach towel, from Duane Allman’s slide to the science of statistics, to be an American—or to make things “look American”—has always been a matter of stripping away distinctions, of blurring them rather than specifying them. “Less is more,” in America, translates into “The less distinct, the more inclusive” and somehow, Bavington’s paintings embody this nexus. The refinement of European modernism intersects with the amnesiac ebullience of American democracy, and the question of which is which becomes moot.

The secondary benison of the stripe format for Bavington was his discovery that he was an artist for whom music, rather than literature, pictures, or philosophy, provided the most relevant parallel discourse. So, appropriately enough, Tim Bavington’s stripe paintings began with his “cover” interpretations of standards—of modernist paintings by Gene Davis and John McLaughlin straightforwardly appropriated then blurred with nuance and forgetfulness. “They looked pretty nice,” Bavington said of these paintings, “but, you know, they sounded like country music, so I looked some more.” Ultimately, he decided that the organic pigments and natural provenance of the modernist palette were making his paintings look earthbound and folksy, and, to suppress this  inappropriate association, Bavington set about creating a rock and roll palette, exchanging traditional cadmiums, thalos, zincs and ochres for a spectrum of synthetic, laboratory-generated color—“paint-card color,” in Frank Stella’s phrase. As the series developed, Bavington would tailor the color more and more to the character of the stripe-sequences he was painting, but in the beginning, he appropriated palettes wholesale from the popular zeitgeist, from Gucci magazine ads and Missoni fabrics, from The Simpsons television show and Warhol portraits.

Then, having updated has palette, Bavington backdated his compositional method, falling back on the musical sequences and harmonic intervals employed by sixteenth century Italian painters, occasionally flattening the curtains of color with bands of opaque color along the bottom edges of the painting. On other occasions, to arrest the flick- er of space and narrative, which renaissance painters liked better than Bavington, he would run a harmonic sequence from left to right in one color and from right to left in another. Even harmonic sequences, however, left a good deal of the composition to improvisation. Relying on these internalized, habitual preferences, Bavington decided, generated the “billows” in the surface, and, somehow, even through the spray gun de-substantiated the paintings’ surfaces, it was important to keep these surfaces flat, so he updated his compositional strategy. Taking a cue from the titles of his paintings, which had always come from rock-and-roll, Bavington began painting guitar solos, which have the virtue of being improvisational departures from static iterative pat- terns, of being random but not quite.

To make these paintings, Bavington began transliterating musical scores from sound to color. He would create a twelve-hue color wheel, choosing the “tonic” color to taste. He jettisoned modernist ideas about the analogies between colors and emotions (i.e. red means anger) for two reasons, first, because they are wrong and second, because emotion, should it occur in the vicinity of the painting, occurs in the beholder and not in the painting. Having generated a twelve-hue color wheel, Bavington would then translate a rock solo from the twelve-tone musical scale into his equivalent wheel, with appropriate bends. He would translate note lengths into bandwidths, use black for silent rests, indicate octaves by relative brightness, and distinguish legato from staccato by adjusting the degree of blur. These translations were presumed to be just that, arbitrary translations, based on a subliminal belief in the unity of the arts and the possibility that the complex values and intervals created by great guitarists like Duane Allman, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Scotty Moore might be translat- ed into a plausible visible equivalent.

From a sketch (or score) like this, Bavington would then paint the painting, adjusting here and there for taste as a guitar player might, but never in an effort to “represent” the song, or the “spirit” of the song, or the “spirit of rock and roll.” The idea was to stop narrative not replicate it, and Bavington’s twelve-hue-to-twelve-tone translation did this by mathematically suppressing complementary colors, as Bridget Riley does. The idea was to translate a piece of music into a painting—to translate a sequence of aural events in which “each part of the composition is presented in a specific order, with a specific duration to a passive listener” into a sequence of visual events before which active viewers may “begin at different points, scan and meander across the canvas, creating their own chronology.” To do otherwise, Bavington felt, would be like painting portraits...and then, by the logic of such things, he began thinking about the Warhol portraits whose palettes he had appropriated. At this point, it seemed right somehow to carry the analogy with Warhol’s method one step further, so he began appending blank, monochrome canvases as pendants to his “palette portraits” as Warhol had done with his portraits Marilyn and Elizabeth Taylor. Appended to chromatic translations of guitar solos, these “blanks” had the effect of fields of reverberation, and the logic of the diptych lead quite naturally to idea of making over-under diptychs of guitar duets, and this led to the idea of “stereo pendants”— of “blank” on either end of the painted solo, like the speakers of a recently obsolete boom-box.

As the transliteration process from music to color became more habitual and nuanced for Bavington, the next rational step, in the artist’s rationale at least, was to begin painting entire songs, carrying the melody all the way out to its conclusion, or stacking the base, treble and, occasionally, the alto clefs atop one another in bright-dark- darker vertical rows. In this format, the music’s narrative aspect began to have the positive benefit of suppressing the grid of stacked bar structures by creating fugal patterning. The relatively simple patterns of the dark, bass clef introduced a new, iterative, chromatic obbligato to the visual mix. The resulting formal complexity reduced the visual demands on the palate. This made quieter colors both viable and more appropriate. The muted colors also lent themselves to diptychs in which a song was juxtaposed with a version of itself in a different color sequence (or key, if you will).

Throughout this process, Bavington developed the habit of holding his tongue and holding his hand, of letting the paintings act themselves out within their multiple parameters and come into being un-prettified. Any problem with a painting, it would seem, was presumed to be a problem with the methodology or with the initial selection of a tonic color, so a painting might be replaced, but never retouched. This, for Bavington would be much too modern, and somehow, not fair. As a consequence, each of Bavington’s formats, from the appropriations, to the solos, to the diptychs and triptychs, to the songs has a moment of remission or divagation—in which a format is set aside for the moment. This moment usually occurs when a new adventure presents itself, as it recently did when Bavington fell upon the idea of adding noise (or more specifically shifting volume) to the tone and sequence of the music he was translating. He began painting striped parallelograms and chevrons that infer diminuendos and crescendos by ascending, descending, or both, like the noise of the radio in a passing car. As always, with Bavington’s paintings, the narrative analogy, whether you “get it” or not, is beside the point. All that matters is that there is one, and that the deployment of color, shape and interval has its own internal machinery. There is always logic, in other words, but never a plan, so when I asked him recently, “What comes next?” Bavington shrugged and said vaguely, “Well, Kandinsky, you know, or Mozart, or Coltrane, something like that.”

Las Vegas, 2006

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