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John Harvard's Journal

Painting across Cultures

March-April 2005

"Skill without imagination is craftsmanship and gives us many useful objects such as wickerwork picnic baskets," wrote British dramatist Tom Stoppard in his play Artist Descending a Staircase. "Imagination without skill gives us modern art." If Stoppard is right, then Julia Chen Davidson '05 presents a problem. Her works are surely contemporary, some rendered in paint that has barely dried at this writing. Yet they combine both imagination and technical skill in ways that place Davidson at a far remove from trends of the current art world. "I'm not on the cutting edge of what people are doing today," she says. "People are making spectacular installations, sculptures, video art, large-scale works with things hanging from walls that are visually stunning. A lot of people have said, 'Painting is dead, it's exhausted, a dead medium.' To paint on a canvas is a classic, conventional way to work. I feel like I'm back in art's Stone Age."

Julia Chen Davidson
Photograph by Stu Rosner

Consider the reaction of the well-known sculptor and installation artist Mona Hatoum, who saw in Davidson's studio an oil painting of a woman acrobat balancing on an inverted image of herself. "It's too graphic," said Hatoum -- perhaps a bit like calling a piece of music "too melodic." But the graphic precision of Davidson's pieces can indeed be unsettling, since she uses this realistic style to render physically impossible or ambiguous images. One of her Chinese acrobat drawings, for example, stacks three men and one woman atop one another in positions that are theoretically plausible but which real-world factors like body weight would prevent any actual humans from realizing -- even Chinese acrobats.

"I stumbled on the image of acrobats as symbols," Davidson says. "They express possibility. They are holding themselves up in seemingly impossible ways, but managing this very delicate equilibrium of balance and flexibility." It is no accident that the acrobats in question are Chinese. Davidson is highly conscious of her mixed heritage: her father, James, is American and her mother, Louise, is Taiwanese. Furthermore, Davidson's senior thesis in visual and environmental studies (VES) aims to grapple, in visual terms, with the demanding challenges of a cross-racial, cross-cultural identity. "It is difficult growing up in a cross-cultural household," she explains, describing her thesis portfolio as a way to "make up for lost opportunities, and deal with guilt for not absorbing my Chinese component."

"One has to be an acrobat of sorts to be able to slip constantly between the two cultures and be able to retain your balance," says lecturer on visual and environmental studies Paul Stopforth, Davidson's thesis adviser. "Many writers in exile have dealt with this question when dealing with two geographies and two histories, but visual artists have not looked at this problem consistently. Julia's willingness to take this on is both a risky and an ambiguous business. The pictorial discomfort we get, recognizing that what we are seeing is impossible, reflects how she herself feels. The paintings and drawings are very much about dislocation, the way one feels as an exile, an immigrant."

Though born in New York City, Davidson moved at age six with her parents to Hong Kong when her father, an investment banker (who has since turned to creative writing) took a job there. The family later moved to mainland China, where Davidson attended sixth grade in the only English-language school in the city of Tianjin, a missionary school that held "radical views on questions of origins and biology," she recalls. "I would come home saying, 'Guess what? Evolution is completely false!'"

She learned Mandarin at school and from her mother; living in Hong Kong (where the family returned after one year on the mainland) was no help because Cantonese is the prevailing dialect there. (After her sophomore year at Harvard, however, Davidson spent a summer in Taiwan studying Mandarin and now says she has "conversational fluency -- I'm OK, but a little rusty.")

An untitled charcoal drawing by Davidson, based on images she collected from Chinese and American magazines, is, she says, one of her "forms that resemble people."
Drawing courtesy of Julia Davidson

Davidson graduated from Hong Kong International School, where she played rugby as well as basketball and volleyball. But from a young age she excelled at art and drawing, a fact both she and others recognized. "I was always the 'artist person' in class -- people would ask me to do posters for events," she recalls. "I identify myself as a draftsman."

Yet when she came to Harvard, she says, "I never thought that I was going to concentrate in art. I had several thoughts and misconceptions about art: it wasn't a 'real' discipline; it wasn't going to make money; and it was almost too easy for me to do." She explored social sciences, but at the end of the year applied to VES, an honors concentration, and was accepted.

"I thought about it over the summer," she recalls. "I said, 'I'm really comfortable with this thing that I do well. But God forbid, I come to college and find out that I'm not really creative! Maybe I can draw really well but am not able to make things that move people." The creativity crisis did not last long. "Once I started studying [art] theory, I thought, 'Wow, this is really great stuff!'" she says. "When you're trying to convey an idea or message, it's not just about the craft. To make something that pushes art further -- that's a daunting task."

Stopforth, who is also the senior tutor in VES, "taught me how to get beyond my 'skills,'" Davidson says. He asks students to do experimental things that can fracture established habits -- like drawing with the left (or non-dominant) hand and without looking at the paper, or using dried reeds instead of pens and pencils.

In another of Davidson's classes, she drew a cadaver at Harvard Medical School. Perhaps that experience helped inform her series of charcoal drawings that render close-ups of human body parts. The execution is marvelously three-dimensional and realistic, yet these pictures are unsettling to view: it is difficult to identify exactly what part of the body one is seeing, partly because the extreme close-up means the viewer doesn't know the scale of the drawing. Stopforth calls them "disturbing and slightly erotic images." Many of these nude fragments look brazenly sexual at first glance, but can be deceptive: for example, a picture that seems to show vaginal penetration actually depicts a fold of skin between the shoulder and chest. "Ambiguity, I really like," Davidson explains. "You want to attract the viewer. They are trying to figure it out. They stay and keep on looking because there's more to look at."

She develops this theme further in more recent work that Stopforth calls "more complex and psychologically more threatening than the earlier drawings. They're difficult to accept, they're tough." One larger-than-life charcoal drawing shows a muscled body from the neck to mid-thigh. Yet there is a navel embedded in one thigh, a deep cleft in the abdomen that is actually a folded leg, and exaggerated female cleavage above the pectorals. "The distortions that occur in them reflect a strange hybrid kind of creature," Stopforth says. "Julia's begun to translate the questions she has about being a hybrid into images that portray the complexity of her thinking." An earlier and far different work, Davidson's Self-Portrait with Flowers (2003) in oils (see photograph of the artist, above), does not distort the human figure but also suggests the artist's Asian background, in that it overlays her image with a Japanese origami-derived flower pattern projected onto the canvas.

That painting, although already sold, currently resides in Davidson's workspace in Harvard's Linden Street Studios, where she shares a spacious, high-ceilinged room with three other artists. A bamboo plant lives there, alongside various items Davidson has foraged on trips to Boston's Chinatown, like masks and Chinese New Year decorations. She has even used the space to shoot a video performance of herself doing varied acrobatic moves. "I've had to balance things and bend over backwards and adapt to different situations," she says, referring to her mixed inheritance. "I played out this metaphor physically. The next thing would be to actually be that flexible."

At Harvard she has shown her work at the Adams House Art Space and in Carpenter Center. She admits, though, to "fear and anxiety about people looking at my work. I'm very, very self-critical, and never fully satisfied with anything I do."

And she does lots besides art. An avid Red Sox fan, Davidson helped organize a tea at the Signet Society, an arts-oriented private club for Harvard undergraduates, after the Sox won the World Series; hosted by three Signet members -- all named Julia and all part-Asian -- the event celebrated Red Sox centerfielder Johnny Damon, whose mother is Thai. Davidson also serves on the board of the Women's Leadership Network and the Advocate's art board.

Despite her accomplishments, Davidson does not plan to become a full-time artist. "There are a lot of obstacles to entering the art world -- it's a huge mess," she says. "If what you're looking for is recognition and success, trying to get into the big galleries, it's a lost cause. They already know what they want to be showing." Although she has interviewed with some firms, she's also dubious about fitting into investment banking or management consulting. "I want to be in a creative industry," she declares. "I think I want to be in marketing, brand management, advertising." Another option might be the business side of the art world, which Davidson sampled last summer as an intern in the contemporary art department at Sotheby's in New York City. "It was a great experience," she says. "It integrates the fast-paced business world with the arts." It requires, in other words, two things Davidson has in abundance: skill and imagination.

~Craig Lambert