Looking at Joe Davis’ brightly colored beach scenes evokes the playfulness of mid-century prints by Raoul Dufy, Matisse and Miró that hung in his room as a child. Kites, umbrellas and sails are freely and joyfully painted, fusing abstract and linear elements often seen from an overhead perspective.
Davis’ gallery, DelrayART in the Pineapple Grove Art District of Delray Beach, Florida, is described as focusing on a “sophisticated coastal sensibility” and features his paintings and prints, as well as the works of photographers Karen O’Neill and Verne Varona. The gallery also offers full custom framing services. Like his signature beach scenes, Davis’ journey to Delray is a colorful story, abstract and brimming with interesting elements.
After attending Philadelphia College of Art, where he majored in printmaking, Davis moved to New York City in the early ’80s. After showing at more conventional galleries in SoHo and 57th Street, Davis became involved with the East Village alternative gallery movement, where he showed with Colin de Land of Vox Populi and American Fine Arts, and later with Frank Bernarducci of Bernarducci Gallery.
“My style evolved from abstract to more graphic representation based on my love of drawing and cartoons. I began creating large murals in art spaces and nightclubs. My work was used in a Steven Spielberg production, which allowed me to travel to Japan, where I did several large projects,” recalls Davis.
“I was also very lucky that I was in New York at that time, when you could still find studio space if you were willing to live a bit dangerously. I had a great studio on 42nd Street that allowed me to paint the people and buildings of the Taxi Driver period before it was redeveloped. This led to my doing a fair amount of work for The New Yorker and other national publications,” Davis says.
After losing his space in 1995, Davis left for a job in Delray Beach, where he became the art director for an educational publisher. “I had something of a mid-life crisis I guess, though that sounds overly dramatic, and stopped seeing myself primarily as an artist. Frankly, I didn’t think I would ever paint again,” he says. “I didn’t realize it at first, but while I was no longer painting, I had simply transferred my creative drive to digital media that would play a vital role in my reemergence as a painter a decade later. I use the computer and printing skills I acquired in commercial art all the time in my art now, working back and forth between paint, digital and print. Rather than being discrete, separate things they all inform each other.”
In 2006, a little frame store on Atlantic Avenue was selling its space. “I had this idea that maybe the hip, young couples who were flooding into Delray might be interested in graphics that could command the high ceilings in the new luxury condos and lofts,” says Davis. “I started showing large-format prints of work by interesting artists I knew at a price a young family could afford. It was interesting, cool stuff. Our first show featured photographer Harrison Funk, Michael Jackson’s personal photographer; he has photographed some of the world’s best-known faces. Next was a show of giant Barbie prints by local (then child) designer Amanda Collechio—stuff that no one else was showing, at least not in Delray Beach. What surprised me was that the older people who buy more expensive art also liked what we were doing.”
It was about that time that Davis started painting again.
“While not a ‘beach person,’ suddenly I saw the beach as a pretext of something really interesting,” says Davis. By using a fanciful aerial perspective—something he had started doing in New York in the early 1990s—he flattened the picture plane by cutting out the horizon. “Now the painting emphasizes the abstract elements over the descriptive, naturalistic ones—something I find exciting as a painter and graphic artist. It was if my ‘painting gene,’ which I thought had atrophied, came alive with a vengeance,” he says, smiling. More recently, Davis started revisiting some of his earlier passions of creating abstract art and incorporating line drawings and figures. “I am really into these multilayer resin pieces now. They require a lot of fabrication, and I almost feel like I am half painter and half contractor. They are not just paintings but truly commanding objects,” he notes.
A few years ago, Davis lost his lease as Atlantic Avenue became a huge tourist destination. “Here we go again, I thought, just like 42nd Street all over again. But luckily, we found an even better space only a few blocks away in the Arts District, and things are better than ever,” he says.
People often think there are three or four painters showing at the gallery, but Davis is the only one. “All my career I had difficulty committing to only one style or approach, which led me to have to rebrand myself many times, and caused some confusion and frustration as galleries wanted consistency above all else,” says Davis, who seems overjoyed with his work today.
What would he say to his young artist self if he could go back in time? “I would tell that young guy that I know he won’t believe what I am telling him, but he needs to trust me that there are worlds far outside your perceptions,” says Davis.
Stacey Marcus is a Boston-based freelance lifestyle, luxury and travel writer. Her works have appeared in Art New England, Boston magazine, Boston Common Magazine, Modern Luxury Chicago, Ocean Home Magazine, Playboy .com, RD.com and many others. A lover of big words and little white dogs, Stacey’s biggest joys are found in life’s simple moments.