On my shortlist of the most significant artists in Peterborough is William Joel Davenport. Born and bred in Peterborough, he is a self-taught artist who flies under the radar, but whose work is usually the first to fly off the gallery walls at Artspace’s annual 50/50 exhibition and who deserves the attention of serious collectors.
Chatting with Davenport, who sometimes exhibits as Steppenwill, over coffee at the Only Cafe, I quickly find myself deep into a conversation about automata, ethnomathematics, Ron Eglash and his research on African fractals, Sierpinski triangles, tessalations, interference patterns, the uroboros, phosphenes and entoptic hallucinations. I find this juncture between mathematics and culture fascinating – and I realize we’ve only scratched the surface.
To give you an idea of his methodology, here’s a synopsis of his 2012 show at Gallery in the Attic, where he exhibits frequently:
Combining methods of automata, collage, decalcomania, and chance operation, Steppenwill’s eidetic visual results evoke the “indecipherable images” surrealist pioneer Dolfi Trost spoke of in 1945 when he proposed applying ‘rigorous scientific procedures’ to the creation of art, to reveal “the unknown that surrounds us.”
Davenport is uncomfortable with the word image and prefers the term graphic material. His body of work includes paintings, zines, decks of cards, games, digital artwork, silkscreen prints and recently textiles. Often playing with the distorted output of a scanner jam, he will draw the result, then rescan, methodically interplaying the manual drawing with the scanner language. He pushes the envelope of pure abstraction and archetype, and challenges himself with limitations, often implementing recursive exercises to see how far he can stay hands off and still retain a human element. As he points out, “a kaleidoscope is only interesting for about 15 seconds.” The process may be calculated, self-referencing, and steeped in logic, but the result magically finds the threshold between purely informational and numinous. How do our minds assign meaning to purely abstract imagery, and at what point does a pattern become a deeper experience? “If I don’t get the exact right feeling in my guts, I keep working on it,” he explains.
Much of his work is in stark black and white, and in the format of low tech zines, like the Entrez Le Bois and Woodwork series, “places where the undecipherable is undermined by the viewer’s imagination.” He also integrates wordplay into his work, in addition to clever names for games which often incorporate French phrases. He uses colour well but rarely. “Colour can slow me down … it’s too emotional.”
Miroir Noir is an open-ended memory game he devised which consists of a set of cards printed with a pixelated design reminiscent of the back of a classic deck. He invites contributions to a descriptive index that range from Imp with Overbite and Its Three Young Causing a Menace, to Alligators in the Dark Water Detecting Fish, to Conical Structure with a Dark Entrance & Spectres Floating Above. In his introduction he notes:
The Miroir Noir project features highly subjective, ‘automata’ graphics where the conscious mind is subverted both in the creation and perception of the graphics or so-called artwork. This has the effect of bringing to light some of the less obvious aspects of perception especially the aspect of perception by which we make patterns and occasionally meaningful potential where it is not necessarily so. The graphics are also playful with the process of how perception is continuously reprocessing and refreshing input.
Invariably I’m transported by his work. It feels like theatre to me and even 2 dimensional paintings seem to have an animated dimension of the mystical and arcane, not surprising as he tells me some of his inspiration comes from sacred art and ritual. I find myself wondering if its significance is the projection of my own mind or his intent. Like Dada cinema, there are times when the work suggests something sinister, yet other times it’s playful. It can be baroque or organic; some of his work has narrative qualities, and there are hints of humour. But above all I find enchantment:
The darkness inside the honeycomb
Night blooming flowers
The gate to the garden
Pagodas of the moon
Samurai koala bear with crown
Marshmallows at dusk
Man Ray at the Venice carnival
Davenport’s work is a carefully considered, sophisticated study in pattern, maps of the uncharted territory of the mind. What he accomplishes is nothing short of alchemy.
You can find editions of Davenport’s zines, games and other merchandise at Artspace or online here: