Chasing Light | Craven Allen Gallery, Durham | Through September 4

In “Last Barn Standing,” one of the 30 or so paintings in David Davenport’s new show at the Craven Allen Gallery in Durham, midday summer light creates luminous shadows on a behemoth structure that leans, slightly off-center, in an overgrown field.

Davenport found the barn high on a hill just off Highway 54 near Saxapahaw in Alamance County. Struck by its ark-like appearance and abandonment—he likens it to a shipwreck—he decided to pay tribute to its survival, even while eulogizing its future demise.

In another barn painting, “5 O’clock Shadow,” late afternoon light generates a diagonal shadow across the cypress boards of a humble structure. The simple façade, divided in two by a ladder leading to a small black square at the top, is an abstract geometric design accented with shades of violet, pink, and blue.

As the title of his show, Chasing Light, affirms, Davenport is an aficionado of illumination. As he explained in a recent email, he uses “chasing light” as a metaphor for his attempts “to experience and capture the effects of light on the rural landscape’s barns and fields during different times of the day and throughout the seasons.”

Davenport often travels the back roads of eastern North Carolina to view and absorb, in his words, “the changing light on the fields and abandoned buildings in the rural landscape.” He sometimes takes photos and creates rough sketches of these “roadside attractions,” as he called them. Back in the studio, he creates watercolor and acrylic studies that allow him to experiment with various techniques, and work out the composition.

Davenport comes to his subject matter as a North Carolinian born and bred. From a childhood in a farming community in the eastern part of the state to earning a BFA at East Carolina University to later settling in Durham, he has spent the better part of his painter’s life transcribing his Tar Heel surroundings. Davenport ventured beyond the border to work in advertising in New York City for a while, and he still draws on board skills and techniques. He also sought to further his painting practice, which included earning an MFA at the University of Maryland in 1979.

There, he studied with sculptor Anne Truitt and served as a teaching assistant to painter and art historian David Driskel. Their mentoring led Davenport to teach, which he finished with a nearly 30-year stint at Alamance Community College in its advertising and graphic design department.

Davenport is sharing the gallery with fellow Durham-based artist Bryant Holsenbeck, an environmental artist who uses found materials—plastic, fabric scraps, credit cards, bottle caps, straws—to create sculptures. For her third show at Craven Allen, she presents Animals in the Hood, a remarkable and charming menagerie that includes herons, rabbits, songbirds, chickens, and bats made from all manner of materials affixed to wire armatures.

Holsenbeck’s free-form creatures make a nice complement to Davenport’s straightforward, light-drenched scenes.

The American realist painter Edward Hopper once famously stated, “What I wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a house.” Davenport is on a similar mission as witnessed by the show’s painting “Salt Box Summer,”  a side view of a classic New England-style white house in full sunlight, its signature roofline—short in front, sloping in back—cutting into a blue sky. In other pieces like “Sweet Spot” and “Summer Shadows,” the exteriors of white houses serve as canvases for shadow play.

Davenport is drawn to a range of architecture. Painting “I Dream of Jeannie” offers a nondescript yellow trailer home set on a concrete base in a featureless grassy lot. The title, borrowed from the 1960s sitcom, might have been inspired by the large satellite dish in the front yard, but it could also represent the aspirations of the dweller of this end-of-the-road place.

In a more surreal vein, “Twilight Drive In” features a drive-in theater set against a glowing sunset, one which harks back to the dramatic skies of Frederic Church and the Luminists.

The blank, wide, white screen is as mysterious as the monolith discovered in a Utah canyon last year.

When he’s not portraying buildings, Davenport paints fields, often under cultivation. In “Flooded Fields and Summer Burn Off,” tilled rows lead the eye to distant trees. Once again, light plays a crucial role, casting, respectively, cool and warm tones on the pastoral scenes.

In a few cases, Davenport switches the perspective, giving us the view of the landscape as viewed from within. Most notable is “Spring Opening,” which offers a blast of bright sunlight as seen through the doorway of a dark barn. 

“The light rays illuminating the old wooden door awakens within me a creative spirit,” Davenport writes. And, he might have added, the joy of emerging out of winter confinement and being drawn back into the world

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