I. There is a moment in Book VII of Plato’s Republic, shortly after Socrates has developed the famous allegory of the cave, when Socrates is criticized by Plato’s elder brother Adeimantus for having a conception of “higher studies”–he’s referring to philosophy, which Plato defines in the book as a love for higher, eternal forms of being that are intelligible but invisible–that is too generous: “for if someone were to study something by leaning his head back and studying ornaments on a ceiling, it looks as though you’d say he’s studying not with his eyes but with his understanding. Perhaps you’re right and I’m foolish, but I can’t conceive of any subject making the soul look upward except one concerned with that which is, and that which is invisible. If anyone attempts to learn something about sensible things, whether by gaping upward or squinting downward, I’d claim–since there’s no knowledge of such things–that he never learns anything and that, even if he studies lying on his back on the ground or floating on it in the sea, his soul is looking not up but down”. Socrates responds by saying that Adeimantus is right to reproach him, and that he’s been justly punished. In Book X, the critique of the visible realm of becoming as an inadequate basis for knowledge that Plato develops here turns into a critique of painting as a practice of imitation that, precisely because it imitates, cannot but be removed from the higher, eternal forms of being that constitute the true and the good.
One could, in an obvious way, theorize abstract painting as a kind of painting that would escape Plato’s critique, because it does not try to imitate but instead transforms onto the canvas precisely something of the mathematics–geometry and calculation–that Plato associates with the higher and eternal forms of being that exist beyond the imitations that surround us, and that other-than-abstract painting imitates. In this sense, the vampire–a creature that, according to the painter David Reed, recognizes itself in abstract painting because abstract painting, unlike mere imitation, does not reflect the vampire’s being, which is without reflection; the vampire, famously, has no mirror image–would be something like a platonic idea wandering among us, a living human being turned into a platonic idea that, in order to sustain its curious nature, is in desperate need of human blood. Although Reed does not do so, one could reverse his analogy, and say that abstract painting recognizes itself in the vampire: beyond imitation, but in need of human blood. The analogy can be completed, finally, by extending it to Plato and his theory of ideas: it might work for vampires, and yield a brilliant theory of abstract painting, but it is in desperate need for human blood, the life that might be brought to it through a little imitation.
II. I find something of the tension that I have set up here–between the platonic idea, abstract painting, the vampire, and the need for life–in the paintings of Dan Davis, which fall neither under the category of abstraction that might come close to the platonic idea and the vampire, nor under what Plato would reject as imitation; and they don’t entirely (how could they, as paintings, ever entirely?) stand on the side of life either. Take, for example, Davis’ representation of something Adeimantus argues can never lead to philosophical knowledge: an ornament on a ceiling.
Entitled Math, Davis’ painting seems to suggest that something of the higher, eternal forms of being that Socrates is talking about–some of the philosophical knowledge that the Republic praises so highly–can be achieved through imitation, through imitation that is (like) math. Another painting entitled Illuminated by the Light shows something similarly mathematical: a corner of a room, constituted by a floor, two walls, and a ceiling divided into smaller geometrical forms.
However, in Illuminated by the Light the mathematics of the room already appear to be slightly off, as if the mathematical reality of the painting has been bent and the carefully divided geometry of the ceiling is on the verge of collapsing, just like the rest of the room. The feeling one gets looking at this painting is contrary to the illumination that mathematics, at least in Plato’s view, is supposed to bring. Instead one is left, particularly in the case of Math, with a sense of dark oppression, as if Davis, at some point in time, was there to witness this ornament on the ceiling and paint it, but has long since died, together with the rest of us–and all that remains, somewhere, in a very, very small room, is this ornament on the ceiling, some mathematical leftover of a vampiric society that at some point sadly ran out of blood.
References: Plato. Republic. Trans. G.M.A. Grube. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992. Images: Dan Davis, Math, oil on canvas, 104 cm x 155 cm, 2007; Illuminated by the Light, oil on canvas, 95 cm x 70 cm, 2007.