ArtStrength in Struggle

noah davis’ artistic legacy finally arrives in nyc

January 29, 2020
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The legend of artist/curator Noah Davis is, for the most part, a West Coast tale. It’s the story of how an extraordinarily talented painter became a cornerstone of the Los Angeles art community by not only trying to impart his broad artistic vision, but also by fighting against an art-world establishment that reduced the creative worth of the Black America he called home. The bittersweet nature of the fact that Davis succeeded on both fronts but did not live to bask in that success (he passed away from cancer in 2015 at the age of 32) is now, sadly, a firm part of his legend. It hangs like a cloud over the marvelous survey of his work — paintings and installation — curate by Helen Molesworth at David Zwirner gallery in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. Yet it also informs the exhibit as a cultural event, where a once-local myth gains in strength by finding a broader audience in a social setting that once rejected him. 

Artist Noah Davis speaking at The Underground Museum on May 6, 2015, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/WireImage)

The true epicenter of Davis’ tale is central LA’s Arlington Heights neighborhood. That’s where in 2012, Noah and his wife Karon Davis, founded The Underground Museum, a neighborhood venue which he used to bend the will of the art word’s institutional oligarchies, and gave the city’s great Black artistic community a space of its own. “I like the idea of bringing a high-end gallery into a place that has no cultural outlets within walking distance,” he told Art In America magazine soon after it opened. The Underground Museum is now a successful art-space and cultural venue, a garden, an art-book store selling artisanal swag, and a public-private compound with plenty of pop-culture eye candy, couches and a TV screen that plays BLKNWS, a fake-CNN-style video piece created by Davis brother, the filmmaker Kahlil Joseph, on a loop.

The Zwirner exhibit has a side-room that recreates The Museum’s hang-out vibe. It also doubles as an installation about family. In addition to Noah’s paintings and Kahlil’s video, the room is filled up by one of Karon’s sculptures, and some furniture designed by Davis’s mother Faith Childs-Davis. (Note: Underground Museum t-shirts are also for sale — while supplies last.)

Great as a New York version of The Underground Museum is, it is fair to say that it’s Davis’ paintings here — the first large-scale survey of his canvases shown on the East Coast — which constitute the exhibit’s main attraction. That’s because, over the course of a short period of time, Davis used a relatively specific, earthy color palette to explore many variations on melancholy and soulfulness. Almost all of his paintings are filled with characters — one gorgeous exception on view is a night-time horizon-scape of a light-filled LA at night — and yet while themes of domesticity and family, naturalist and inner-city environments thoughtfully appear and reappear, the context in which the artist presents them frequently changes. 

Noah Davis, ‘Leni Riefenstahl,” 2010 © The Estate of Noah Davis. Courtesy The Estate of Noah Davis

For one, much of Davis’ work has an unyielding streak of dreamy surrealism, yet one whose artistic purpose evolves from painting to painting. It’s most strongly exemplified by a 2009 Dali-meets-Dr. Who canvas called “Imaginary Enemy,” in which a white-suited figure wearing a teacup on his head looks set to step through a ring into what appears to be another dimension, one that includes a black figure on fire. More common are the less heavy-handed flickers of dreams and the multidimensional, symbolically engaging everyday life: a figure with a lantern looks into an abyss (2011’s “Painting For My Dad”); classical arts performances are displaced in — and juxtaposed against — a south-central LA housing project (2014’s diptych “Pueblo del Rio: Arabesque,” which features ballet dancers fronting an apartments court-yard, and “Pueblo del Rio: Concerto,” where a pianist and a grand piano foreground a cement factory); a naked white human figure bows to a fawn on a mountain-top terrain (2010’s “Prey”). 

Noah Davis, “Isis,” 2009 © The Estate of Noah Davis. Courtesy The Estate of Noah Davis

On the other hand, there are also Davis’ warm portraits of the Black community, and of his own family home — some based on his mother’s mid-1970s snapshots of life growing up on Chicago’s South Side. There’s a scene of kids jumping into a crowded public pool, of an uptight (and, again, slightly surreal) cook-out scenario, of two women asleep on a couch, of a mother and a baby in a living room, of a young boy being washed in a sink, and of another being spanked. (The latter’s title, “Bad Boy For Life,” echoing a classic Diddy 2001  hit is a hint at how Davis’s paintings never sink fully into a traditional nostalgia when describing the world inside his four walls.)

Noah Davis, “Single Mother with Father Out of the Picture,” 2007-2008 © The Estate of Noah Davis. Courtesy The Estate of Noah Davis

This social and artistic evidence of Noah Davis’ legend is there for all to see at Zwirner, but the spiritual evidence of his meaning, and his effect on the people around him, can not be so easily be placed. Probably my favorite of the “eulogies” to Davis by the people who knew him best, was delivered as part of a 2017 conversation between the celebrated Los Angeles painter Henry Taylor and the curator Hamza Walker in Cultured. Taylor, who is three-decades older than Davis, said of their friendship, “I think I grew from that relationship more than any other relationship. I saw a lot of his frustration as a young artist who was ambitious and smart and just so passionate about making art… I was concerned about the painting, but he was concerned about the market… I started to take the art world, I don’t want to say seriously, but I started to really look at it closer through him, because of what was happening to him. I was oblivious to certain things because I was more content. But he was never content. Where others whined, he just said, ‘I’m going to change it.’” 

The spirit that Taylor describes is why, great as Noah Davis’ art is, his legacy will never simply be about the work that hangs on the walls. Instead, it speaks to the work that future generations will produce, to which spaces that work is shown in, and to who will be the audience energized by it.

Noah Davis is on view at David Zwirner 19th Street Gallery in Manhattan’s Chelsea until February 22nd.