Reverberating Gravity: Mobiles by Mark Davis

Pucker Gallery
Aug 13, 2016 9:05PM

When Mark Davis entered the world of mobiles, the genre had a notable art historical pedigree but few accomplished contemporary practitioners. The term “mobile” was coined by Dadaist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) in 1931 to describe Alexander Calder’s (1898-1976) earliest moving creations. Calder’s aesthetic was very much du jour, an active and dimensional take on the abstract paintings of artists like Piet Mondrian (1872-1942) and the Surrealist paintings and sculptures of Joan Miró (1893-1983). Kinetic art reached a crescendo of popularity post-World War II, when the Bauhaus philosophy toward design catalyzed an international exploration of the style. In 1955 French gallerist Denise René staged the watershed exhibit Le Mouvement featuring artists such as Duchamp, Calder, Victor Vasarely (1906-1997), Yaacov Agam (b. 1928), and Jean Tinguely (1925-1991), among others. Published during the exhibition, Vasarely’s “Yellow Manifesto” served as a founding document for the movement, announcing the death of easel painting and proclaiming that art should bring joy and beauty to human beings and create peace and harmony. By the 1960s, kinetic art came stateside, with Howard Wise Gallery organizing numerous exhibitions in the 1960s and 1970s and The Nelson-Atkins Museum organizing The Magic Theater exhibition in 1968. Already by that time, kinetic art had developed from Calder’s manual engineering to a more technologically-driven approach.


In many ways, Davis’s mobiles are an homage to the interwar period in Modern Art and celebrate the essential beauty of an art form where balance is achieved solely through the genius of the artist and movement comes only from the breath of air or the gentle touch of another human being. The artist composes motion through the thoughtful interplay of individual elements, always cognizant of the synergy of the compiled elements with their surroundings. Each shape is like a stanza in a poem or a phrase in a song—economically crafted yet highly expressive, beautiful when unaccompanied but exponentially more powerful when taken in concert with its cohorts. Davis’s artwork embodies many of the characteristics in Vasarely’s manifesto: joy, beauty, peace, and harmony.

Lao Tzu philosophized that “knowing others is wisdom, knowing yourself is Enlightenment.” The path to self-knowing is neither divined, nor straight, nor singular. Each individual must determine his or her own route, acknowledging the journey instead of focusing on the destination. For Mark Davis, art-making is an avenue of self-discovery and a vehicle for expressing his hopes and dreams. Joy has been born from his art, and through his art he delivers that joy to us. He once said, “my real training has been to follow and listen to my inner intuition, allowing my mind to open up to inner secrets.” In his deepest understanding of himself, and in the outward expression of his artwork, Davis has chosen to privilege joy over everything else.


Davis’s mobiles are an apt metaphor for the artist himself. Being an artist is the stable underpinning, the fulcrum, around which his world swirls. Energy shoots out from that concrete point, like from the soul. A playful tension emanates between balance and motion, strength and delicacy. He has written that, “through abstract shapes I play with the concepts of space. My ideas come from organic life, the human form, and the external landscape, while deeply reflecting my internal landscape and dialogue. The work is playful, joyful, and always changing, and that is the way I see and experience life in all its complexities.” Such bold and spirited artistic self-expression is the public face of a modest and private man who, like all of us, has experienced his share of setbacks and suffering. As 13th century Persian poet and Sufi mystic Rumi wrote, “why should I stay at the bottom of a well when a strong rope is in my hand?” This kind of purposefulness takes effort, though Davis is humble about his own accomplishments in this way. 

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Davis has always enjoyed the discipline of working with a single material—metal—and is particularly drawn to its elemental and lasting qualities. He uses sheet metals of different weights and compositions like steel (the heaviest), brass (the most difficult to manipulate, it needs to be softened by heat then quenched in an acid bath repeatedly throughout the working process), aluminum (the lightest), and gold and silver (the easiest to shape, hence its popularity in jewelry). Flat sheet metal is formed by traditional silversmithing methods such as planishing, whereby the piece of metal is hammered out on an old railroad tie with different depressions creating different contours. Rolling the metal back and forth through the English wheel (a tool originally made for the auto industry) shapes and smooths the metal. His is not a spontaneous art, which makes it all the more impressive that the final product feels so effortless and expressive.

Ideas and inspiration come from everywhere, and since almost anything can trigger his imagination he keeps a sketchpad in the car for getting shapes down on paper. When he begins a new work, he might sketch something rough or use an old castaway as a new beginning, thinking about a few strong sets of shapes then adding lyrical counterparts. Often this stage is done in cardboard to allow for maximum fussing, and more often than not the final product deviates greatly from the basic concept or sketch from which it was born. According to Davis “the balancing is done by intuition at first, and then as the piece progresses, I am able to fine-tune the balance. Initially, my vision is to see the various elements floating in space, relating to, but not anchored to the earth. By completion, each piece becomes its own very personal universe.” At first, all the pieces are finished with temporary joining arms so that Mark can adjust them to fine-tune the aesthetics and the mechanical balance. He finds the center of gravity, then a pinpoint or dimple is needed and the weights of the pieces keep everything perfectly balanced. This creative process is emblematic of the virtuosity of Mark Davis and metaphorical to his life—taking something heavy and countering it with lightness, appreciating how separate elements must work in tandem to create balance, and bringing something colorful and joyful into the world. Art is the “pinpoint” or the “dimple” around which Davis’s life is kept in balance.

Henri Matisse once wrote, “what I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter—a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.” Mark Davis literally achieves this balance in his varicolored mobiles, paying homage to subjects from nature to the human gesture, deftly playing substance against grace, carefully considering the reciprocity of stillness and movement, positive and negative, light and shadow. Davis also achieves this balance with his humanity—funny and sincere but tough, he is a man of simultaneous strength and fragility, afflicted by his demons but mindfully choosing to see joy all around him. Through his mobiles, Davis communicates the many complexities of the human spirit in a way that words never could, helping the viewer to achieve their own inner balance, then tipping our scales towards a more contented place.


- Jeanne V. Koles

Jeanne Koles is an independent consultant who does project management, design, and writing for museums and the cultural sector.

Pucker Gallery