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"The Songs Do Not Remain the Same" by David Pagel

Paintings, like CD’s, have only one side that’s worth paying attention to. LP’s have two, as does every story that’s more captivating than a one- sided one-liner. Tim Bavington’s deliriously beautiful canvases plant one foot in each of these worlds. Marrying the straightforward directness of traditionally formatted paintings (and the user-friendly accessibility of CD’s) with the unpredictable open-endedness of unexpected discoveries (and the bittersweet tinge of vinyl’s bygone days), the Las Vegas-based painter’s arrangements of soft-edged stripes, blurry blocks of color, and blinding flashes of light create mirage-like illusions that invite two distinct, if not opposed, types of viewing.

Both begin with the pop songs that inspire and structure Bavington’s attractive abstractions. And that’s where their similarities end. 

The first type of viewing favors interpretation. Dedicated to expla- nation, it focuses on meaning—on making sense of the relationship between the songs that serve as the paintings’ titles and Bavington’s renditions—or covers—of those songs in his signature palette of air- brushed acrylics arrayed in fairly staid compositions. I think of it as the analytic approach to his spray-painted versions of rock-’n’-roll riffs, the attempt to read his compositions systematically, as codes that convey the logical structure of melodies, guitar licks, music.

The second type of viewing treats the titles of Bavington’s canvases as curious sidelights: little, added-on bonuses that may accentuate the experience of looking at his works but in no way determines, directs, or defines their significance. Rather than reading his abstractions asvisual translations of specific songs by determining and dissecting the setups that brought them into being, this looser, more subjective, and far more freewheeling type of viewing is all about each viewer’s idiosyncratic interaction with a particular work: the physical sensations, optical kicks, and emotional impact of its colors and shapes and, most important, the visual rhythms these formal features create as they draw your eye, not to mention your mind and body, into the action. I think of it as the experiential approach to Bavington’s savvy abstractions, which involves the willingness to suspend disbelief and leap, often head over heels, into the syncopated, back-and-forth beat of his deliciously improvised stripe paintings. When this happens, the mind’s-eye actu- ally dances in front of the painter’s strangely capacious surfaces, falling into their atmosphere of cool, hedonistic grooviness, which is impossible to convince others of unless they feel it themselves—and then, of course, there’s no point in arguing for it. Analysis simply falls into the background, where it plays a secondary, at best subsidiary role.

This more poetic and engaging type of viewing begins in the conviction that a work of art is a peculiar sort of suspended performance, a won- derfully illogical type of time-release event that is always ready to happen, again and again, whenever a viewer (or any number of viewers), brings his (or their) attentiveness to it. The only proviso is that the work must continue to deliver some kind of satisfaction—something unex- pected, above and beyond, even thrilling. What counts is not what took place in the painter’s studio or the thought-process that led up to those actions or the system that the artist set up to get the work done. What matters is what all those elements generate: a work that actually works—that does its thing in the moment, long after the rudiments of the task of its making have disappeared into history and all that is clear is the work’s ineffable, indescribable presence, which consists of the effects it triggers in the present.

This is what Bavington is after in his unsentimental yet moving art, and it is also the best way to get the most out of his stylishly sexy paint- ings. Comprised of fuzzy bands, floating rectangles, and, occasionally, extremely out-of-focus imagery, these artificially compartmentalized— and wildly inventive—rainbows come in an infinite variety of trippy tertiary tints that are all the more mesmerizing for blending, clashing, and sizzling with an equally subtle and even more lovely range of deli- cate, whisper-soft pastels. Bavington electrifies the mix by shooting it through with a keyed-up cornucopia of screaming neon bands and, most recently, a singularly kinky panoply of atmospheric drabs and diaphanous mattes, ordinarily dreary tones and subdued shades that he somehow manages to transform into jaw-dropping, mind-bending, soul-expanding orchestrations of visual resplendence, like nothing else out there. You have to see Bavington’s virtuoso repertoire of coloristic high jinks to believe it; and even then, his sensuous riffs on the spec- trum’s natural tones and organic blends defy comprehension.

Back in 2002, Bavington came up with a way of making paintings that forced him out of his comfort zone. Like a lot of artists who got good at what they were doing, his facility for making handsome compositions in tasteful color combinations began to feel too easy, almost as if he were merely going through the motions or operating in default mode. So, to break the grip of habit and make things fresher, more unfamiliar, and adventuresome, Bavington turned to rock-’n’-roll. He drew up a color wheel with twelve hues, one for each of the twelve musical tones of the chromatic scale. He then chose a “tonic” color, which limited his palette to the eight hues that corresponded to the eight tones of the musical scale, or key, of songs. Here’s how Dave Hickey puts it in "Gravity’s Rainbows": "Bavington would then translate a rock solo into equivalent colors, with appropriate bends. He would translate note lengths into band widths, use black for rests, indicate octaves by relative brightness, and distinguish legato from staccato by adjusting the degree of blur."

The guitar solos he chose functioned as vehicles that allowed him to make paintings with just the right balance of structure and improvisation, necessity and happenstance, rigor and whimsy, discipline and freedom.

For all kinds of reasons, many viewers missed this part of the picture. In learning that Bavington’s compositions were translations or transliterations of specific songs, they assumed that the analytical perspective was sufficient and settled for treating the paintings referentially, as if they depicted, in variously encoded forms, the songs in their titles. To a certain extent, the poetry was lost as reading the lyrics replaced dancing to the music. The transformations that took place in the shift from sound to sight, which are essential to Bavington’s canvases, not to mention his way of thinking, fell out of the foreground and sometimes disappeared altogether, lost in the background. Looking at his synthetic rainbows, jam-packed with eye-grabbing incidents, often became a matter of recognizing the songs they referred to and recollecting some of the memories associated with them.

Over the last ten years, Bavington has gone out of his way to nudge his art out of the confines of such narrowly analytical readings. His latest paintings play up their non-representational features, emphasizing that although their sources are popular songs, the rhythms they set in motion are visual: silent, but never quiet dramas that play out in the mind’s-eye as they pulse through a viewer’s perceptual organs and come alive in the feel of their beat. The act of translation transforms the particular song into something distinct from the original, which the painting does not represent or portray so much as it uses it as a springboard to go somewhere else.

Bavington’s new works fall into five groups: 

Stripes, like the six-foot-long Eagles (Wolfmother), the six-foot-tall Thick as Thieves, and the seven-foot-long Magic hark back to his beginnings. Their seemingly straightforward arrangement of hazy tertiaries in various widths, cycles, and refrain-like repetitions are most closely linked to the songs from which they originate. But the simplicity of these pieces is deceptive, tweaked by more subtle improvisations and intuitive highlights than before. In the past, each band of color was uniform, a consistent tone from top to bottom. As it faded out at its edges, it blended with the tints on its left and right, creating nuanced gradations that recall sunsets and the fades in Ed Ruscha’s paintings. In Bavington’s most recent pieces, he sprays thin, racing-stripe-style lines over selected bands, adding pictorial depth, sculptural volume, and psychological complexity to his compositions. Sometimes a rosy red zip inflects a fat band of burgundy. At others, a razor-thin slice of chartreuse sets off a serene section of olive drab. And at still others, hazy grays and gorgeous golds put visual kinks in the sensuous pinks, lovely lavenders, and diaphanous aquas that swim in and out of focus in Bavington’s increasingly hallucinatory paintings.

Dissolving Stripes, like Secret Agent (Solo) and Thunderbird, resemble Bavington’s classic Stripes, except for the blurry expanses of dull, light-swallowing color (teal grey and dusty grape) that run across their bottom edges. These uninterrupted swathes of emptiness bring time and transience front and center. Their blank uniformity, at the base of the picture-plane, threatens to cancel out the playful energy of the jaunty arrangements above and suggests that such lively energy and animated movement can easily—and instantly—disappear into the void, go silent, and die. Mortality and melancholy enter the picture, makingthe rollicking pleasures Bavington’s art delivers all the more cherished and dear because they are fleeting, unguaranteed, and human.

Stacked Stripes, like Ball & Biscuit and Changes, compress songs that unfold over time into untraditional, vertically formatted diptychs and, even rarer, double-diptychs. Bavington transforms flowing, linear narratives into time-defying setups that allow viewers to skip, skim, and skid all around each composition, mixing—and re-mixing—passages from the beginning, middle, and end like nobody’s business. His colored bands segue gracefully from one to the next and also jump abruptly, creating both harmonious and dissonant visual symphonies that sometimes suggest duets and at others intimate choruses. In every case, these perfectly square paintings leave viewers with more room to maneu- ver than their dimensions and tidy geometry imply.

Mirages, like Kosmos, Manic, and Magic Pie, are among Bavington’s most pictorial and illusionistically sophisticated works. Like his Dissolving Stripes, they physically bring time into the picture. But rather than hinting at the fact that the music will inevitably end, they suggest the opposite: that the high points overwhelm the senses, creating intoxicating moments of flashbulb-bright brilliance that are both blinding and thrilling, too hot to handle rationally and too cool to stay away from. In Magic Pie, a handful of bands, in yellow, orange, blue, and pink, runs top to bottom, like digital renditions of Barnett Newman’s zips. Behind them, the rest of the painting resembles an ethereal version of Clyfford Still’s sublimely electrifying abstractions, as if filtered through Gerhard Richter’s seductively out-of-focus oils-on-canvas. Kosmos and Manic riff off of Ed Ruscha’s paintings containing EKG- style diagrams, transforming their linear simplicity into pulsating jolts of sizzling energy.

Receding Grids, like Blue Fretboard, break Bavington’s habit of basing his paintings on songs. Rather than referring to a song at all, this painting is based on electronic toys like Guitar Hero, which guide fun-seeking kids of all age through rock-’n’-roll’s greatest hits by flashing lights on the right chords at the right times. Bavington’s nearly ten-foot-long painting combines the sumptuous, coloristic solidity of Donald Judd’s wall sculptures with the dreamy intangibility of Howard Arkley’s pop paintings, tweaking both by embracing inconsistency and asymmetry. This out-of-sync, improvisational quality is integral to Bavington’s art, as is its DIY, participatory impulse that Blue Fretboard highlights.

Taking greater liberties with the structures his art starts out with, Bavington amplifies the mystery and the magic. Aimed at viewers of all stripes, his latest paintings make ample room for unexpected discoveries that resonate with everyone differently.

David Pagel

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