By Green, Charles
Artforum International , Vol. 45, No. 5
Across a corner of Rat Man, 1980, Juan Davila spells out his early painting's comic-strip intention in cursive script: A DISCOURSE ABOUT A DISCOURSE / ART IS MADE FOR THE RECOGNITION OF DESIRE. When he painted Rat Man, it seemed that Davila's discourse of pornographic desire centered on a programmatic method of citation and viral perversion of modern and contemporary art. Twenty-five years later, this large and exquisitely curated survey makes it clear that Davila recognized that desire resides more in the vicious, willed malevolence of people toward one another than in the multiplicity of sexual and artistic borrowing depicted in Rat Man.
Born in Santiago, Chile, Davila attended art school at the start of the '70s, during a period of tragic political instability, and then moved to Australia in 1974 (he still lives in Melbourne). There are two other facts that most people who have heard of Davila know: At the 1982 Biennale of Sydney, his vast pornographic panorama Stupid as a Painter, 1981-82, was seized by the police; at London's Hayward Gallery in 1994, his transvestite representation of Simon Bolivar, South America's great liberator, triggered an international diplomatic scandal. Producing hot, wildly sexualized, transcontinental history painting, Davila has had one eye on the art museum's occluded sexual economy and another on the more undigested, less polite, more repellent colonial undersides of Latin American and Australian history. His works have always been about dramatic splits--traumatic divisions--and the naturalizing masks that hide this mountainous geography. For this reason his pictures of the '80s and '90s look like neo-expressionist machines--imagine a totally wired, hyperactive, queered Julian Schnabel. During that period, Davila was essentially producing performances of painting, simulating masterpieces. More recently, the uncanny and unexpectedly tender appearance of affectionate friends and family (rather than syphilitic, predatory colonial explorers), in pastoral scenes and domestic interiors, signals either the acknowledgement of humility or his mellowing with age. …