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John Frederick Davis (1936–1999)

by Ken Scarlett

This article was published online in 2023

John Davis, by Richard Beck, 1970s

John Davis, by Richard Beck, 1970s

National Library of Australia, 40059978

John Frederick Davis (1936–1999), sculptor, was born on 16 September 1936 at Ballarat, Victoria, eldest of three children of Victorian-born parents Frederick William Davis, bank clerk, and his wife Evelyn Margaret, née Frederick. Spending his teenage years at Swan Hill, John enjoyed camping and fishing by the Murray River. In 1955 he commenced a secondary teaching certificate at the Melbourne Teachers’ College (TSTC, 1957), subsequently teaching art and woodwork in regional high schools at Queenscliff (1958), Numurkah (1959–60), and Mildura (1961–62). On 7 January 1961 at the Presbyterian Church, Myrtleford, he married Shirley Edith Heberle, an art teacher he had met while studying. His earliest sculptures were produced while at Mildura, including organic wood carvings, mostly derived from straight lengths of Murray River pine. He submitted three works for the Mildara Prize for Sculpture (1961), the forerunner of the Mildura Sculpture Triennial.

Moving to Melbourne in 1963, Davis taught at Highett High School while completing a part-time associate diploma of sculpture (1966) at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. In 1967 he was appointed lecturer-in-charge of 3D design and sculpture at the Caulfield Institute of Technology. Here his work became more exploratory with organic forms cast in aluminium and linked with geometric structures covered with polyester resin and fibreglass. He became fascinated with a particular form which he reproduced repeatedly from a mould: Sixteen (1969) featured these identical forms arranged in an orderly manner of four by four and was shown that year in his first one-person exhibition at Strines Gallery, Melbourne.

Davis’s interest in repetition culminated in an ephemeral work, Grass Process Work–Part 1 (1971), for which he spread a large sheet of plastic with rows of cut-out circles over grass at Heide, the home of John and Sunday Reed at Bulleen. Naturally, the grass grew through these circles; as the critic Donald Brook observed, it was a ‘transition from an art of objects to an art of process’ (1971, 14). For a short time, process itself became the focus of Davis’s intention: he filmed himself tearing up pieces of newspaper (A Tearing Work, 1974) and tying knots in a long length of string (Plaiting, 1975). There was no final object.

After a year travelling overseas with his family in 1972, Davis was appointed lecturer (1973–74), then senior lecturer (1975–80) in 3D design at Prahran College of Advanced Education. He became an active member of the Australian Labor Party, contributing to several exhibitions which raised funds for the party. At the fifth Mildura Sculpture Triennial in April 1973, he re-established his links with the Australian bush; he contributed Tree Piece, consisting of six eucalyptus trees with part of each trunk bound with a variety of commonplace materials. Frances McCarthy and Daniel Thomas later described it and similar art as ‘ephemeral installations of humble materials’ rather than ‘art as a precious object or expensive capitalist commodity’ (Recent Australian Art 1973, 5). The word ‘installation’ became increasingly appropriate as a descriptor for works that Davis constructed in the late 1970s at Hattah Lakes, the Ovens River, the You Yangs, and in the Barmah Forest, where materials were gathered on the site and the works were left in the environment as ephemeral features.

By 1978 Davis’s work had become critically acclaimed: he represented Australia at the Indian Triennale in New Delhi and at the Venice Biennale, and was honoured with an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), the first in a series on contemporary Australian artists. He developed a highly distinctive style, with sculptures constructed of eucalyptus twigs tied with cotton thread and partly covered in calico or papier mâché, sometimes painted with bitumen. His work reflected the Australian landscape, combining ‘a sense of space (the landscape seen for miles around) with a love of detail (the twigs and bark underfoot)’ (John Davis 1988).

Though Davis’s often fragile and unorthodox objects were not easily saleable, the Watters Gallery in Sydney loyally showed his work during the 1970s and 1980s. In a memorable solo exhibition there in 1981, Region, a complex work of twenty or more structures resembling a miniature three-dimensional view of human habitation, filled the floor of the gallery in a remarkably unconventional display. With a growing international reputation, he held several exhibitions in Japan (1982–83, 1986), where gallery directors delighted in his use of simple materials and in the perceived Australian characteristics of his works. He also exhibited in Los Angeles (1984, 1986) and Seoul (1985), and completed a large commission at the Australian Embassy in Saudi Arabia (1987). In Australia there were major exhibitions in Sydney, Hobart, and Perth, and in Melbourne at the Heide Park and Art Gallery (1988). Despite these commitments he continued teaching (1981–92) at the Victorian College of the Arts. A recipient of several awards and grants, he won the Blake prize for religious art in 1993.

Davis’s last major exhibition, Koan: Nomads, Rivers and a Presence, was held in 1998 at the Robert Lindsay Gallery, Melbourne. Consisting of twelve structures representing the Murray River and numerous constructions including fish, the exhibition marked a return to the origins of the artist’s oeuvre, which Lindsay considered represented Davis’s ‘kinship with the Australian landscape’ (Scarlett 1999, 50). There was also an underlying political message: ‘Davis was decrying our degradation and despoliation of the earth’ (Gibson 2011, 63). Predeceased by his wife (d. 1998) and survived by his daughter and son, he died of cancer on 17 October 1999 at Elsternwick, Melbourne, and was cremated. Friends and colleagues remembered him as ‘a good, gentle and honest man’ (John Davis: Presence 2010, 142). A retrospective exhibition of his work was held at the NGV in 2010.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Brook, Donald. ‘Cubism Mumble.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 20 May 1971, 14
  • Gibson, Prue. ‘John Davis: Artist Profiles.’ Australian Art Review 26 (March-April 2011): 62–64
  • John Davis: Places and Locations. Curated by Ken Scarlett. Bulleen, Vic.: Heide Park and Art Gallery, 1988. Exhibition catalogue
  • John Davis: Presence. Curated by David Hurlston. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2010. Exhibition catalogue
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Recent Australian Art. Curated by Frances McCarthy and Daniel Thomas. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1973. Exhibition catalogue
  • Scarlett, Ken. ‘John Davis: Sculptor.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 20 November 1999, 50
  • Scarlett, Ken. The Sculpture of John Davis: Places & Locations. South Yarra, Vic.: Hyland House, 1988
  • Survey 1: John Davis. Curated by Robert Lindsay. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1978. Exhibition catalogue

Additional Resources

Citation details

Ken Scarlett, 'Davis, John Frederick (1936–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/davis-john-frederick-32226/text39865, published online 2023, accessed online 25 February 2024.

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