A Kansas City Artist Responds To Trump And Builds A Wall — Made Of Oil Paintings

May 18, 2017

Walk into Haw Contemporary in the Stockyards district of the West Bottoms, and in one gallery, artist Davin Watne has built a 30-foot long wall. There are nearly 40 paintings in a collage — small and large, clamped together — stretching the length of the room.

The exhibition, Picture the Wall, is, in part, an artistic response to Donald Trump’ s call for a wall along the U.S. and Mexico border during the 2016 presidential campaign. And it carries on a long tradition of, as Watne puts it, "oil on canvas as a means to convince" the public. 

On Wednesday, as the paintings were being unwrapped and lined up, Watne stopped to answer a few questions: 

A view of the installation-in-progress, at left, of Davin Watne's 'Picture the Wall' at Haw Contemporary. A section of Miki Baird's 'remnants and residue' show is pictured, at right.
Credit Davin Watne

The installation debuted in January in Colorado, before this showing at Haw Contemporary in Kansas City. Could you talk about the ideas behind it? 

"I had almost a year to prepare for this exhibition in Western State Colorado University in Gunnison, Colorado. A friend of mine was teaching out there and he gave me the dimensions of the gallery.

"This doesn't happen very often — I know it's like in movies it happens all the time — but I literally had one of those like wake up out of bed ideas. I woke up and I went downstairs, and I drew it out and wrote it down. And that was just this imposing wall of images, partly inspired by Donald Trump's rhetoric on the wall. I thought, 'What does that feel like?'"

How did you decide which images to incorporate? 

"As I watched the events [of the 2016 presidential race] unfold, I just kind of subject-ized America, using paintings as a way to talk about contemporary imagery and the way imagery is kind of trafficked. It breaks off from its original source and floats around, it's mailed to people or emailed or text messaged.

"And I could use the history of painting as this form of bearing witness to the past. 

"Things that make their way into the imagery, or into the wall, are flags, because flags are like a graphic representation of a nation. So I thought about all the nations within our nation, both through subcultures and through Native American nations.

"But the other more representational imagery on there, I was going a lot on intuition. Things that I thought spoke to the complexity of America's story and America right now.

A close-up of Watne's painting of a video still of Kellyanne Conway and Megyn Kelly in the 'Picture the Wall' exhibition.
Credit courtesy of the artist

"So there's an interchange between [Trump spokesperson] Kellyanne Conway and [former FOX anchor] Megyn Kelly, this is something that I've updated. It's taken from a video ... in which Kellyanne Conway and Megyn Kelly are having this heated exchange over which candidate was better liked by women.

"I just thought that you can look at the image and maybe try and decipher what this conversation is between the two, or you can recollect and try and remember that actual instance. But I'm interested in what the viewer might think about this image 50 to 100 years from now, in a way."

Because we're in such a rapid clip of news happening, do you have a sense that maybe some of these images will become outdated quickly? 

"That's a huge concern. The wall made its debut in Colorado on Inauguration Day [January 20], that's when it was up for the public.

"I had this fear [as Election Day was drawing near] that Hillary Clinton was going to win, Donald Trump would become obsolete, this whole wall of imagery that I had been culling together for the past year would really feel irrelevant because people would be tired of the election, ready to move on, ready to start healing. And the last thing they'd want to see is a reminder of the 2016 election and all the political events that surrounded it, right? And then, that didn't happen.

"As we know, Donald Trump was elected and people were hungry for some type of analysis. And so, through this exhibition, just through looking at imagery, I've been taking a visual analysis of the aesthetics of things — what does this look like? How are graphics used in FOX? Washington Post, how do they visually organize imagery with text. All those kind of things kind of made their way into the work."

You talked about how you've already updated it, and it does seem like it has the potential, as you display it in different locations, that you could update it as an ongoing narrative.

"It has the potential to keep evolving. But it's tough because I don't want to just illustrate the news. There has to be a further investigation that's going on. And I think some pieces are more successful than others at that.

"And there's just something kind of absurd about painting, which is very labor-intensive, something that is like a quick little YouTube snippet of a talking head pundit on the news. There's something really, I think, wonderfully absurd about that. And I'm hoping viewers in the future will look back and see this is a little snippet of what it was like."

This detail of the wall includes flags, plein air paintings, and a sliver of the TIME magazine cover featuring Donald Trump.
Credit Davin Watne

You've worked in a lot of different media, including sculpture and installation. How did you choose oil painting for this? 

"Oil painting is my background and my foundation. It's the medium I'm the most comfortable with. The problem with this particular exhibition is the speed at which things need to get done, so sometimes I'll do a base of acrylic and put oil on top. 

"Oil painting has got that tradition to it. It's such an old, wonderful medium. It's my favorite, it's like settling into an easy chair. It's incredibly nimble, you can experiment with it. You can really get that kind of classic, neo-classical look, if you want.

"It was a way to kind of go back to what I'm most comfortable and successful with, but still try to create something that's architectural and structural, that has a big form to it, that the viewer kind of has to confront."

Davin Watne's 'Picture the Wall' opens May 19 and runs through June 24 at Haw Contemporary, 1600 Liberty, Kansas City, Missouri. 816-842-5877.  

Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter @lauraspencer.