HUDSON, New York — In 2016, Lisa Corinne Davis published an important essay in artcritical, “Towards a more fluid definition of Blackness.” In it, she writes:
Many African-American artists feel the obligation to represent Blackness. My position as an abstract painter allows me to manifest my own sense of self — my black self — as an expression of self-determination and freedom, while avoiding an oppositional stance. I do not believe this position is “post-racial” since I am not sure that that is possible. Yet the current system of how to include black artists in the mainstream seems to be stuck in tropes from the past. I do not want to negate discussions of race and racism in art, but I do want to open the conversation by detaching Blackness from a narrow racial term, allowing it to be more pliable. This will not cause current and historical racial differences to cease to exist, but it will enable artists who are not foregrounding Blackness in their work to become equally important members of the conversation. By rupturing accepted racial boundaries, subtlety and aesthetics will play a social role in the expansion of that conversation.
Davis’s comments reminded me of something that Stanley Whitney said to me in an interview nearly a decade earlier (The Brooklyn Rail, October 2008):
With African-Americans, race is always a big issue, and how the art answers the call to race. Everyone understands how to be a doctor or a lawyer — a social activist — to answer the call to race, but what does painting have to do with it? […] Being an abstract painter, what does that do? Where does that fit in? People have a hard time with that.
As Black artists of different generations, who moved to New York to pursue painting and elected to become abstract artists, Davis and Whitney have had to find ways to respond to, negotiate with, and push back against the expectation that their work should embody an overtly political component.
In her current exhibition, Lisa Corinne Davis: All Shook Up at Pamela Salisbury Gallery (through November 2), accompanied by an insightful catalogue essay by the noted art historian Nancy Princenthal, Davis’s long pursuit of layering multiple visual systems and schemas has — to my eye, at least — reached a new state of visual resolution, one that feels deliberately unstable, approaching collapse or collision. With this breakthrough, multiple ways of reading her work have come into starker focus.
The 15 vertically oriented works are all in either oil or oil and acrylic on canvas, panel, or paper. In scale, they range from 14 by 12 inches to 60 by 45 inches. Compositionally, they share the superimposition of open linear structures over one another. These structures evoke skewed and decomposing grids, disturbed networks, circuitry, collapsing and crashing systems, cells, and even fishnets, pipes, and girders — elements from both the virtual and physical world.
In addition to these features, she includes puzzle-like parts in solid colors and linear bands arranged at various angles, as well as different-colored planes, often abutting each other, spanning part of the canvas, like a path of flat or uneven paving stones.
Looking into Davis’s paintings, we cannot tell how far back they go; this suggests a depthless space that shares something of our experience of a digital screen. Although she uses green and/or blue in every work, she does not seem to have a set palette. She often uses punning alliteration in her titles, such as “Flitting Foundation” (2019) and “Miraculous Measure” (2020). They summon a range of associations regarding how the corporate world and government develop ways to identify the individual.
Whereas Whitney composes by laying down rectangles of color, which he goes over or changes, within a non-overall grid, Davis layers together different structures and forms, which she might scrape down, leaving a ghostly echo, before beginning again. As Princenthal points out, citing a statement by Davis, “the paintings begin on canvas, with paint.” One could define Davis as an incremental process painter, as the layers of marks don’t follow any obvious trajectory.
What differentiates her recent paintings from those I saw a few years ago is that the relationship between the parts and structures seems tighter. By that, I mean that as we shift our focus between the open structures and the various forms, we do not get caught up in the eccentricity of a part. Instead, our attention shifts back and forth smoothly.
While these paintings might not initially seem overtly political, I think it would be wrong to reach such a conclusion. We live in a world where everything we do is political, from whether or not we buy a can of Goya pinto beans to whether or not we believe that birth control is a private decision in which the government has no right to interfere. Davis recognizes that grids, networks, and circuits are not purely a product of the art world, and there are myriad contexts in which the government and corporate America deploy them.
Davis’s overlaying of structures underscores the fact that numerous organizations have developed innumerable methods to track and identify all of us, in order to discern how and where we fit into a larger pattern. Once we begin to see her painting through this lens, another consideration begins to grab hold. What might a color or a sequence of colors stand for? Color — as we know from experience — is neither neutral nor equal.
At the same time, the twisted and slanted angles at which the linear configurations intersect and overlap, the refusal to settle for the comforts of an overall structure, can be seen as Davis’s determination to undo the grid’s hold on us. Cognizant that each of us is constantly being tracked, and that our behavior is being registered and fed into a series of overlapping systems designed to decipher what we are up to, Davis’s colors also take on a different meaning. What might they be a code for?
This sense of color further distinguishes her work from other abstract painters. My only suggestion is that she bring in more of the highly artificial colors that are available in acrylic, as this would accentuate the singularity that she has already attained.
Davis adds more twists to our experience when she titles a work on paper “Registered Impersonation” (2020) or a painting “Captious Computation” (2019). What does it mean when a computer is programmed to record our trivial faults? Is this the brave new world we are headed toward? The artist’s ability to call forth the invisible world, in which we are constantly leaving traces of our presence, injects an unexpected and much-needed jolt into abstraction.
In “Specious Position” (2020), Davis divides the painting horizontally into two unequal areas, with the painting’s upper quarter defined by an unloosened grid of white lines on a blue ground. Over this seemingly rumpled surface she has drawn thick brown lines dividing the grid into separate states. Below this grid are two more grids, one composed of blue lines and the other of turquoise on a white ground. Both of the lower grids overlap each other, so that we might read them as a single unit or as two distinct but related schemas.
The tension between the separate states and overlaid grids, and their gesture toward unity and uniformity, is key to the painting. There is constant pressure felt with every overlay, division, element, and intersection. Together, they might lead us to reflect upon what stances we have taken and why.
Lisa Corinne Davis: All Shook Up continues at Pamela Salisbury Gallery (362 1/2 Warren Street, Hudson, New York) through November 2.