Joe Davidson’s airy studio behind his home in Hancock Park, California, is filled with sculptures that aren’t quite what they seem. Boxers’ speed bags lay broken open like overripe figs, devoid of color. Grease-stained hand towels hang along a wall. Balloons in bubbly pastel hues slump one atop the other in anthropomorphic columns.
Davidson renders these familiar forms in unexpected materials: slip-cast porcelain for the speed bags, glazed porcelain for the towels, cast Hydrocal for the freestanding balloons and Aqua-Resin for the ones destined for walls. Viewers often feel an immediate impulse to hold or touch them. “I love that,” he says. “It’s a real testament to people having not just an intellectual and visual response to the pieces but a tactile one.”
In the mid-’90s, he began playing with themes of sports and archetypal masculinity with baseball bats composed of rubber, and he continues to find “poetry” in sculptures that touch on gravity and impermanence. “It’s such an interesting subject to mine,” he says. “And balloons—which float away and are ephemeral—are the antithesis of what we’re talking about when we talk about gravity.”
Drawing inspiration from Fluxus artists, Dadaism and the Arte Povera movement, Davidson likes to see what develops when he steps into the studio and begins manipulating forms and materials. “I like working in an area that makes me uncomfortable, which makes me more sensitive and helps me stay in the moment,” he says. “It’s incredibly frustrating and challenging when you’re not good at something, but it’s also a place for humility and growth.” That’s part of the reason he decided to start working in porcelain. He points to a grouping of shrouded objects, which he creates by draping cheesecloth soaked in porcelain slip over a form of his making. “After it sets, you throw it in the kiln, and that burns out the cloth. Sometimes they come out perfectly; sometimes they come out in 20 pieces.”
No matter what Davidson is working with, there’s a thread that runs through his work. “I touch on heavy subjects by sliding in the back door,” he says. “Even though I’m using symbols of beauty or of fleeting beauty, there’s a constant acknowledgment of mortality that’s been super fascinating to me historically. It’s an entry point to talk about larger things.”