In 1977, the year John Davis made Lean To, he arrived at the low-technology method of his mature sculptures: twigs tied together with cotton, partly covered with papier-mâché, calico cloth, underfelt, latex and bituminous paint. This combination of materials inevitably suggests weathering, bark, rocks, earth and primitive shelters, of both Indigenous and settler peoples. But ‘suggest’ is too vague. Lean To imitates, rather than represents, a shelter in the bush. Against the grain of Australian artistic tradition and along the grain of cross-cultural reconciliation, Davis sought the materiality of a zone between habitation and nature rather than its look. His imitation amounts to a form of trompe l’oeil. Lean To simulates a zone between nature and culture – the place a lean-to would inhabit – his scruffy construction made from small and large sculptures that slot or are bound together into the work’s fragile whole. Lean To might be an aerial view of a miniature region or a provisionally constructed part of a Lilliputian habitation, or a collection of gifts.
During the mid- to late-1970s, Davis reserved parts of potential assemblages as small sculptures, each able to be held in the hand and passed from person to person as exchange works. These he would exhibit and donate ‘in exchange for other art, service, or anything the recipient wishes to offer.’Yet the words of the title, Lean To, conjure something more phenomenological: the fall of gravity, the push of kinetic motion and the result of indexically recording these phenomena. None of this is accidental or unintended. Davis was in close contact with conceptualist artists and, even at this mid-point of his long career, did not reject their ideas but exaggerate the logic latent in global conceptualism. Two years before he made Lean To, Davis meditated on the endpoint that art had reached, then decided, ‘I see no point in re-using ‘‘post’’ formats to advance art, such as the Lyrical Abstractionists are doing at present in painting.’ He was no conservative dinosaur, instead aligning himself with his Art & Language friends rather than with painters or sculptors.
Lean To’s materials were readily available and inexpensive: the parts were suitcase-sized or smaller, easily made in small rooms that Davis optimistically called his studios and not disruptive to domestic rhythms. They are ecologically sound, consisting of simple, biodegradable (though not recycled) materials. They can be combined, arranged or slotted together to make larger, even grand, expansive forms. Lean To is a halfway house between the miniature and the grand, and Davis was producing works at both ends of the scale at this point. But if his method was bricolage, there were some rules. Not all materials were welcome; it is not true to say, as most critics have, that Davis used whatever materials were at hand. He worked with a narrow and rigorously consistent repertoire. The malleable eucalypt twigs and sticks he gathered were not at hand, even in suburban Melbourne, just as kangaroos did not hop down the streets of Hampton, where he lived. He went on camping trips to Hattah National Park, near Mildura, and other favourite semi-arid landscapes to find the types of twigs he preferred. For the most part, there are only twigs, twine, tar, latex, canvas, calico, papier-mâché and a limited palette of white, black and earth-coloured paints in his assemblages. There are occasional appearances of feathers, bones and animal- and human-derived substances, such as hide or hair (materials that his contemporaries Ross Grounds and Ti Parks had used). Davis combined these typical materials without subjecting them to any artificial weathering processes, such as fire or baking in a kiln, to make them appear more ‘natural’, though his works have inevitably changed colour and become more fragile with age. Davis’s materials remained consistent, superficially nondescript, mostly small and approximately the same scale, like building blocks. This focused attention on their character. Lean To is the sum of constructed, handmade models that elaborate his larger perspective on the world. We know that Davis was proud of his formal sense, his ability to organise and patiently work things through, to make good art out of poor materials, and his scepticism about mawkish sentiment. In an artist statement for a 1985 exhibition, he observed: ‘The work I make is formal and structured like a Western artist’s. It hasn’t got the feeling of myth and ritual that Aboriginal art has.’
Charles Green is Professor of Contemporary Art in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne.
Photo: Christian Markel
 John Davis, header above the artist’s list of exchange works compiled up to the mid-1980s, undated, c. 1985, John Davis archive, Melbourne. Davis kept and updated his lists of successful exchanges. For a full account of Davis’s works of this period, see Charles Green, ‘1977–81 the nomad: “If my materials are temporal, it does not concern me”’, in D. Hurlston (ed.), John Davis, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2010, pp.3–49 plus notes.
 John Davis, untitled slide-lecture notes, 1975, John Davis archive, Melbourne.
 John Davis, artist’s statement in Singular and Plural, South Australian School of Art Gallery, Adelaide, 1985, n.p. (reprinted in Ken Scarlett, Sculpture of John Davis: Places and Locations, Hyland House, Melbourne, 1988, p.136).