Mark Moore Fine Art
May 18, 2017 9:01PM

Dave Hickey Looks at the work of Las Vegas artist Tim Bavington:

Young artists have sharper memories than their seniors in the art world. As a consequence, Tim Bavington’s paintings always come as a bit of a surprise to his elders. Their renewal, refurbishment, and  reconceptualization of a traditional modernist painting format (the  stripe) makes them seem at once joltingly new and uneasily familiar— for no better reason than that most young artists begin their careers unpersuaded by the faith of their fathers. Thus, empowered by youthful contempt for received ideas, they begin to make a future for themselves by rummaging through the past by way of reinventing it, hoping, at least, to discover some clean, unsullied, historical ground from which they might embark. They look back for that magical moment “right before it started sucking”—a year or a decade, some nadir of current fashion from which they shake the dust. When they find it, and they invariably do, they endow the moment with talismanic significance and proceed from there.

For Bavington, that moment is the year 1966—the year he was born in the flatlands of East Anglia—the year England won the World Cup— the foaming crest of the days when Bridget Riley, Mod lifestyles, Pucci threads, and youthful impudence achieved their ascendancy in swinging London. It was also the year before Bavington and his parents moved from London to Santa Monica, California for a short sojourn, then back to the UK. Bavington would return again to Southern California when he was eighteen and, from there, move to Las Vegas, where he lives today. During these peregrinations, swinging London in 1966 would gradually emerge as the artist’s ground zero, as the primal site of an evolving myth. Today, the gleaming icon of that special moment takes pride of place in the artist’s studio: an absolutely pristine, sky blue and antique white 1964 Lambretta, Series III Li I50, Mod scooter—a Quadrophenia-mobile.  

The Lambretta scooter, traded for a painting, stands on a little pedestal in Bavington’s studio as a hedge against solemnity and carelessness— and as a hedge against nostalgia as well, since the scooter’s hard reality only marks the starting point of Bavington’s mythical gloria mundi. Over the years of drift, this personal Oz has taken on new attributes: the softness of California air, the neon glamour of the Las Vegas Strip, and the smoky noir of jazz clubs. It has assimilated the zip of Warhol’s “American color,” the ping of Paul Smith’s trippy stripes, and the gloss of Oasis’ rock-and-roll. The scooter stands as a reminder not only of the past’s utility but of its terrible lost-ness as well, and the visible signature of this lost-ness in Bavington’s art has always been “the blur”—the artist’s singular debt to California haze and to the artist Edward Ruscha. In fact, the first instance of the blur in Bavington’s painting occurs in an elegant forgery of a painting by Ruscha that Bavington made to hang in his living room, to serve, like the Lambretta, as an icon of aspiration.

Ruscha’s painting is titled, in police-call diction, Dixie Red Seville Vegas Plates, and it is itself a testament to the blur of memory and influence. Three points of origin (Dixie, Seville, and Vegas) are blurred into one imaginary automotive object speeding through an atmosphere that hovers between remembrance and forgetfulness. Around this time, Bavington’s original works begin to evoke their own blur by outsourcing it. These works are small monochromes painted in shades of white onto panels whose back edges are beveled. The invisible beveled edges of the panels are painted in luminous reds and blues so that, when lighted, the white rectangles float in blurry halos of color that insist on the transience, the radical historicity, of our experience. Bavington’s next paintings—airbrushed, grey-blue rectangles with hazy, horizontal stripes—evoke television screens with the horizontal hold askew (a bit too readily for the artist’s taste). This overt narrative was hastily dispensed with.  

The “origin story” of Bavington’s next paintings, however, speaks volumes about the high-hearted spirit of his practice. These “fuzzy stripe” paintings began in a conversation with the painter David Reed, who was talking about discovering his aspiration to be a “bedroom painter.” The term, Reed said, originated with the painter John Mclaughlin, who, according to his dealer, Nicholas Wilder, always insisted on his wish to be a “bedroom painter” as opposed to a “living room painter” or a “museum painter.” Not long after this, Bavington came across a gallery announcement from Charles Cowles for a show of Gene Davis’ paintings. The Davis painting that was reproduced on the invitation card was Boudoir Painting from 1965. The confluence of Reed, McLaughlin, Davis, and 1965 led Bavington to decide that he “could make a more glam, sexier, and sleazier version of Davis’ painting with a spray gun.” And he could. And something came together. Immediately and involuntarily, the stripes evoked a bouquet of references: colored fountains, ice curtains, neon in the mist, synthetic borealis—gravity’s rainbows, for lack of a better phrase.

Reviewing Bavington’s first show of the stripe paintings in Art Issues, David Pagel “got it” when he wrote that “in a sense, Bavington does for stripe paintings what Playboy did for pornography. Preferring the suggestiveness of the air brush to the explicitness of the starkly developed close-up, his soft rendition of hard-edged abstraction leaves room for the imagination.” For Bavington, inventing this vertical blurred format amounted to an improvisational synthesis, an event comparable to inventing the sonnet, because within this infinitely variable format, everything he valued could flourish. The high and the low, the European and the American, the Mod and the rock, the highmodern and the post-conceptual could coexist happily in rigorous instability. More generally, Bavington’s stripe paintings put paid to the postmodern myth that abstraction is an exclusionary, elitist practice by proving the reverse and locating the idea of abstraction at the heart of democratic invention. From Barnett Newman to the bar code, from Thomas Jefferson’s grid to the Nike swoosh, from the basketball court to the beach towel, from Duane Allman’s slide to the science of statistics, to be an American—or to make things “look American”—has always been a matter of stripping away distinctions, of blurring them rather than specifying them. “Less is more” in America translates into “the less distinct, the more inclusive,” and Bavington’s paintings embody this nexus. The refinement of European modernism intersects with the amnesic ebullience of American democracy, and the question of “which is which” becomes moot.

The secondary benison of the stripe format for Bavington was his discovery that he was an artist for whom music, rather than literature, pictures, or philosophy, provided the most relevant parallel discourse. So, appropriately enough, Tim Bavington’s stripe paintings began with his “cover” interpretations of standards—of modernist paintings by Gene Davis and John McLaughlin straightforwardly appropriated then blurred with nuance and forgetfulness. “They looked pretty nice,” Bavington said of these paintings, “but, you know, they sounded like country music, so I looked some more.” Ultimately, he decided that the organic pigments and natural provenance of the modernist palette were making his paintings look earthbound and folksy, and, to suppress this inappropriate association, Bavington set about creating a rock- and-roll palette, exchanging traditional cadmiums, thalos, zincs, and ochres for a spectrum of synthetic, laboratory-generated color— “paint-card color” in Frank Stella’s phrase. As the series developed, Bavington would tailor the color more and more to the character of the stripe-sequences he was painting, but in the beginning, he appropriated palettes wholesale from the popular zeitgeist: from Gucci magazine ads and Missoni fabrics, from The Simpsons television show and Warhol portraits.  

Then, having updated his palette, Bavington backdated his compositional method, falling back on the mathematical relationships and proportional harmonies employed by sixteenth century Italian painters, occasionally flattening the curtains of color with bands of opaque color along the bottom edges of the painting. On other occasions, to arrest the flicker of space and narrative, which renaissance painters liked better than Bavington, he would run a mathematical sequence from left to right in one color and from right to left in another. Even mathematical sequences, however, left a good deal of the composition to improvisation. Relying on these internalized, habitual preferences, Bavington decided, generated “billows” in the surface, and even though the spray gun de-substantiated the paintings’ surfaces, it was important to keep these surfaces flat. He, therefore, updated his compositional strategy. Taking a cue from the titles of his paintings, which had always come from rock-and-roll, Bavington began painting guitar solos, which have the virtue of being improvisational departures from static iterative patterns, of being random but not quite.  

To make these paintings, Bavington began “transliterating” musical scores from sound to color. He created a twelve-hue color wheel, the hues of which could be directly assigned to each of the twelve musical tones of the chromatic scale. He jettisoned modernist ideas about analogies between colors and emotions (e.g. red means anger) for two reasons: first because they are wrong, and second because emotion, should it occur in the vicinity of a painting, occurs in the beholder and not in the painting. Having generated a twelve-hue color wheel, Bavington would then choose a “tonic” color to taste—this choice having the effect of restricting his color palette still further to the eight hues that would be logically assigned to the eight tones of the musical scale, or key, of the musical composition. Bavington would then translate a rock solo into equivalent colors, with appropriate bends. He would translate note lengths into bands widths, use black for rests, indicate octaves by relative brightness, and distinguish legato from staccato by adjusting the degree of blur. These translations were presumed to be just that: arbitrary translations that explored a subliminal belief in the unity of the arts and the possibility that the complex compositions created by great guitarists like Duane Allman, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Scotty Moore might be translated into a plausible visible equivalent.    

From a sketch (or score) like this, Bavington would then paint the painting, adjusting here and there for taste as a guitar player might, but never in an effort to represent the song, or the “spirit” of the song, or the “spirit of rock-and-roll.” The idea was to stop narrative not replicate it, and Bavington’s direct tone-to-hue translation did this by mathematically suppressing complementary colors, as Bridget Riley does. The idea was to translate a piece of music into a painting—to translate a sequence of aural events in which “each part of the composition is presented in a specific order with a specific duration to a passive listener” into a sequence of visual events before which active viewers may “begin at different points, scan and meander across the canvas, creating their own chronology.” To do otherwise, Bavington felt, would be like painting portraits…and then, by the logic of such things, he began thinking about the Warhol portraits whose palettes he had appropriated. At this point, it seemed right somehow to carry the connection to Warhol one step further, and he began appending blank, monochrome canvases as pendants to his “palette portraits” as Warhol had done with his portraits of Marilyn and Elizabeth Taylor. Appended to chromatic translations of guitar solos, these “blanks” had the effect of fields of reverberation. The logic of the diptych lead quite naturally to the idea of making “above-below” diptychs of guitar duets, and this led to the idea of “stereo pendants”—a “blank” on either end of the painted solo, like the speakers of a recently obsolete boom-box.

Tim Bavington, Sex (Physical), 2005 / Acrylic on canvas / 72 x 161 inches / Permanent Collection The Museum Of Modern Art

As the transliteration process from music to color became more habitual and nuanced for Bavington, the next step, at least in the artist’s rationale, was to paint entire songs, carrying the melody through to its conclusion, sometimes as a single melodic line, but sometimes also stacking the treble, alto, and base (or various combinations of them) from top to bottom in bright-dark-darker hori- zontal rows, just as these parts are arranged in relation to each other on the staffs of a musical score. In this format, the linear progression of the translated melodic line has the positive effect of suppressing the grid of stacked bar structures, creating a contrapuntal patterning. The relatively simple patterns of the dark base introduce a new chromatic equivalent of a basso ostinato into the visual mix. The resulting formal complexity made quieter colors both viable and more appropriate. The muted colors lent themselves to diptychs in which a song was juxtaposed with a version of itself in a different color sequence (or key, if you will).

Tim Bavington, To Cry You A Song (studio working study), 2013 / archival inkjet print with synthetic polymer / 25 x 24 inches

Throughout this process, Bavington developed a habit of holding his tongue and holding his hand, of letting the paintings act themselves out within their multiple parameters and come into being un-prettified. Any problem with a painting was presumed to be a problem with the methodology or with the initial selection of a tonic color so that a painting might be replaced, but never retouched. This, for Bavington, would be much too modern, and, somehow, not fair. As a consequence, each of Bavington’s formats, from the appropriations, to the solos, to the diptychs and triptychs, to the songs has a moment of remission or divagation—in which a format is set aside for the moment. This moment usually occurs when a new adventure presents itself, as it recently did when Bavington fell upon the idea of adding noise, or, more specifically, shifting volume, to the music he was translating. He began painting striped parallelograms and chevrons that infer diminuendos and crescendos by ascending, descending, or both, like the noise of the radio in a passing car. As always with Bavington’s paintings, the musical analogy, whether you “get it” or not, is beside the point. All that matters is that there is one and that the deployment of color, shape, and interval has its own internal machinery. There is always logic, in other words, but never a plan, so when I asked him recently, “What comes next?” Bavington shrugged and said vaguely, “Well, Kandinsky, you know, or Mozart, or Coltrane, something like that.”  

This essay appears in the following catalog available on Amazon:


Paintings: 1998 – 2005

Featuring 54 color images of paintings

ISBN: 3865212859

Publisher: Steidl/Mark Moore Gallery


Mark Moore Fine Art