It feels safe to assume Noah Davis had a pretty good sense of humor. Take, for example, the 2013 exhibition Imitation of Wealth, the inaugural show at the Underground Museum — the Los Angeles exhibition space he co-founded with sculptor Karon Davis, also his wife. As the oft-repeated story goes, Davis, in seeking to borrow artworks from various museums, was faced with rejection after rejection. “He decided if no one would lend him a Jeff Koons, he would make one, if no one would lend him a Dan Flavin…” and so on and so forth, recalled curator Helen Molesworth during her opening remarks for Noah Davis, a (mostly) solo presentation of the Seattle-born artist’s work now on view at David Zwirner. Because Davis, she described “above all other things, was funny.”
Wandering through the galleries again on a rainy afternoon, I overhear hushed discussions of magical realism and surrealist assemblage. Yet what strikes me most about the selection of Davis’s works is the sense of withholding they convey, alternatingly tongue-in-cheek, opaque, and otherwise imbued with a sense of refusal. Davis’s are works about Black people, made for Black people. His compositions, whether hazy, nostalgic, or sumptuously surreal, are of a world that is both familiar yet strange, one where no one’s performing unless for themselves.
This overview of a brief but illustrious career is divided into two large galleries and a front viewing room. Eschewing chronology, it features 31 of the artist’s paintings and collages, and a small selection of sculptures and furniture by Karon Davis and Shelby George, and an installation by Kahlil Joseph (Davis’s elder brother). (The latter’s brilliantly incisive BLKNWS ® Original Programs (2018–2019), absorbed me almost as much as the paintings and amusingly, facilitated the rare experience of watching white folks hesitate before claiming one of the few seats available in the packed space.) While the galleries contain a broad swathe of Davis’s works produced from 2007 until his untimely death in 2015, the front viewing room is modeled on the offices of the Underground Museum. Featuring architectural models of the Arlington Heights space Davis co-founded to present “museum-quality art” in a historically underserved Black and Latinx neighborhood, this section reveals the curatorial side of an energetic career cut short by a rare form of cancer.
Often compared to that of Luc Tuymans, Henry Taylor, and Marlene Dumas, Davis’s style eludes such easy descriptors. Characterized by moody purples, greens, rich browns, and inky blacks, often applied in a dry technique, Davis’s body of work sits in a class all its own, deeply rooted as it is in the particularities of a uniquely Black vision of the mundane. In a smaller, square painting from 2007, cheekily titled “Bad Boy for Life” (2007), Davis renders a familiar domestic scene of a young Black boy bent over his mother’s lap. Here, we enter the moment before a spanking. The child’s arms are outstretched rigidly, tensed in anticipation of the inevitable blow, while his mother looks straight back at the viewer, hand raised above him. Eyes wide, she has no mouth, only a bulging cheek highlighted in a cream tone that matches the striped wallpaper behind her. Her partial expression refuses guilt or indignation over her task. She is simply doing it, and letting us know she sees us seeing her.
This insistence on either meeting or willfully ignoring the gaze appears frequently among the figures in Davis’s works on view. In “Isis” (2009), “Mary Jane,” and “The Casting Call” (both 2008), figures I read as female stare back at me, leery of my gaze and also inured to it; rendered in hues of chocolate, ash grey, and black, they appear used to being looked at but uninterested in explaining themselves on account of it.
Later, I find myself moving slowly, back and forth, between two paintings from Davis’s Pueblo del Rio series, “Concerto” and “Arabesque” (both 2014). A lush purple sky — the ominous color of LA smog — frames the titular south LA housing project co-designed by revered but under-recognized Black architect Paul R. Williams, a major source of inspiration for Davis. In Davis’s version of this urban landscape, Black ballerinas stretch gracefully, framing each side of a building block, while in the neighboring composition, a Black pianist plays the keys in deserted intersection. Faceless, the figures again deny the dynamics of the gaze; their worlds contain a quiet solace, absorbing but impenetrable.
Yet what stops me in my track is Davis’s “Painting for My Dad” (2011), a massive oil on canvas created in the days leading up to his father’s death. Back turned to the viewer, a Black figure stands at the edge of a rocky abyss, peering into an inky void with a lantern in hand. I’m floored by its simple elegance and repurposing of a classic western composition. The murmurs of passing gallery-goers fade out as I stand there engrossed by it, thinking about the many abysses still to come.
Noah Davis continues through February 22 at David Zwirner (525 & 533 West 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan). The exhibition was organized by Helen Molesworth and a select portion of it will travel to the Underground Museum in March.