Linda Davidson's newest puzzle, Nearer to Thee, was inspired by a video shot by a father and daughter in West Texas. They were in their car on the side of the road watching black plumes rise from a burning fertilizer plant. A sudden ball of color burst out—a new explosion. It stunned them. You think you know what you're seeing, then it explodes. Davidson depicted that real-life 2013 explosion in a scatter of 236 square panel paintings.
Together, they form a whole full of holes. There are spaces between the paintings, which are arranged in a grid spanning two walls. Each panel is six by six inches, but their size is all they have in common. Otherwise, they look like they were made by 236 different artists: Davidson is a one-woman show containing many characters with many voices. Monochromes line up next to Asian-textile-influenced pattern paintings. A thick square of neon-orange-tinged whitecaps of oil—a vision conjured by an urban ironist—lines up near a smooth, serene view of a distant flock of birds in a dreary sky. The radiating Borrowed Sunset—each panel has its own title—has to be a smeary quote from J.M.W. Turner himself.
The panels are plastered with such disparate materials that I asked the artist for a list. She sent: "Sheet lead, Plaster, Oil (impasto, glaze, wet on wet, poured), Watercolor, Casein, Gouache, Chalk pastel, Graphite, Charcoal, Blood (mine! Head wound!), Pomegranate juice, Paint rag, Cotton sheets, Lace, Burlap, Linen, Glue, Gesso, Acrylic paint and media, Acrylic transfer, Resin, Melted plastic garbage, Things torched, Spraypaint, Paper, Collage, Scrap metal, Leather."
Room 104 is a little tight. But step back as much as you can, and those 236 disparate paintings agglomerate into a view of that Texas fertilizer-plant fire, an amorphous explosion spreading up and out. Individual panels—depicting a falling man, a lick of red paint (or head-wound blood), a corner from a dot-printed news photograph, the scribbled words "lust" and "waste" and "woops"—have individual relationships to the conglomerated catastrophe.
Davidson teaches at Cornish; she moved to Seattle in 1997 after studying illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design (she made fashion drawings for a while), then traveling and living abroad. Nearer to Thee is her seventh grid installation since 2003. They're elaborate and happen only once every several years. In the meantime, you're likely to run into her larger, unified, single-voiced landscapes. At SAM Gallery this week, I saw two of her placid, woodsy scenes. Until I read the labels, I thought they were by two different artists, each old-fashioned in her way. I was happily tricked.
This article has been updated since its original publication.