Noah Davis, at the Underground Museum, Los Angeles
Reviewed by Ricky Amadour
Directly across from the entrance, an opening statement to Noah Davis, at the Underground Museum, reads “many of the paintings you are about to see were painted in this space.” Smudges, dribbles, and droplets on the floor embody the physical notion of Davis activating the now museological edifice. Until this very writing, The Underground Museum was the gathering space for black culture in greater Los Angeles. As a Delphic entity, Davis predates the popularity of figurative works that are today commonplace in the art world. One cannot escape the imagining of Davis negotiating his thought process, laboring to organize an institution, and sketching together a community that would build its own familiarity and create an indelible mark. Curated by Helen Molesworth and Justin Leroy, this exhibition morphs Noah Davis the man, the architecture, and his paintings, jointly as one indivisible existence.
Davis’s works function as history paintings with sequential narratives that play off one another. In Casting Call (2008), several women are scattered about a room with hands raised as if rehearsing for a dance routine. Dressed in swimwear or perhaps intimates, each figure portrays a unique individualism through body language and facial expression. I immediately connected Davis with the output of Impressionist artist Edgar Degas. Degas’ poetic delineations portray the grace of young ballerinas. Davis’s dancers articulate simple gestures that transfix the viewer on their hidden insecurities and unmitigated humanity. Long, fluorescent overhead lights reinforce the notion of Casting Call as a 21st century labor, with the black-and-white checkered floor recalling the mathematic prowess of the Italian Renaissance. Chronologically, artists of color and stories have been exempt from the Western art historical canon. Davis offers a didactic analysis that helps to fill a documental void.
Capturing the innocence of childhood, Mary Jane (2008), depicts a young girl wearing a bonnet and an apron-like dress. Gazing directly at the viewer, she stands attentively with her hands held together in front of a hedge-like background. Embodying the simplicity of infancy, Davis maneuvers a wand of complexity through subtle messaging; the girls eyes appear stern, yet fully composed. In the same emotive complexion as Amedeo Modigliani’s Little Girl in Blue (1918), Davis articulates the presence of the inner child as a subconscious perceptiveness. As a representation of naivety and youth, does Davis mean to suggest incorruptibility or the calamities associated with the binding societal pressure of adulthood?
As a communal gathering space, 1975 (8) (2013), celebrates togetherness and the effervescent idealism of a hot summer day by the pool. In the forefront of the scene, a young man dives into the pool. Couples are shown canoodling one another, friends are grouped in conversation, while a lifeguard on the job keeps an eye on the crowd. Davis captures the bond of community much like George Seurat’s pointillistic river paintings such as Bathers at Asnières (1884). While Seurat depicts the performative aspects of public life through anonymity, Davis’ ambiguous characters are decisively relatable.
Davis takes inspiration from the many facets of Angeleno urbanization, as in the blinking polarity of colorful lights in LA Nights (2008). His love for city and place is intertwined to his aesthetic decision making, including color, texture, and brushstroke. In Pueblo del Rio: Stain Glass Pants (2014), a composition of three figures gazing away from the viewer stand in front of a crosswalk on the street. An inscrutable person on the right holding a plastic bag reaches down for the ground, as if picking up a found penny. On the left stands a young child carrying a backpack, gripping an adult woman’s hand with variegated leggings. Relating to the geometries associated with cathedral windows, her “enclothed cognition” acts as a signifier of protection.
In Imaginary Enemy (2009), two bodies walk along a roadway, one appears in flames walking towards the viewer, while the other wears a coffee mug-like apparatus on his head while stepping foot into a giant, golden portal with similar characteristics to Cartier’s LOVE band bracelets. As if in a movie backdrop, one side of the painting shows a botanic desert scene, while the other, separated by a sky blue void, creates a perspectival shift. Although there are two esoteric effigies present, they appear to be images of the same person – embodiments of emotional recollections within the self. Could they be personifications of bodily perception, vulnerability, or ego? I walk away with a biblical interpretation of light and darkness, with the void in between being the path we choose to take.
Davis’s social critique, Forty Acres and a Unicorn (2007), a Don Quixote-esque figure saddles a unicorn amidst an enveloping dark periphery. A barely discernible horizon line magnifies the notion of distance within the inestimable chasm. The title of the piece evokes the federal government’s incompetence to redistribute land to formerly enslaved people. The unicorn is certainly a fantasy, so is the undefined horizon the promised land that was never delivered, and one of many promises we’ve failed to keep for the Black community?
In Painting for My Dad (2011), Davis portrays a lone man with a lantern peering into the endlessness amongst an ambiance of stars outlined by a rock cropping. The man, which I assume to be Davis’ father, takes in the tranquil magnificence of the stars. As a meditation of a man searching for himself, could it be his son yearning to discover his own origin? Conceived the year of Davis’ passing, Untitled (2015), reveals a solitary man gently laying on a vast lawn with grand trees unfurling in the scenery. As the most recent painting, I can’t help but wonder if this is a self-portrait of Davis. Emanating peacefulness and freedom, this is the image of him that stays in my mind of him.
Today — the day I’m submitting this article to Riot Material — is the first day of the opening statements and questioning of Federal Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to serve as the first African-American woman on the Supreme Court. As a momentous time in our history, this collection of work — which highlights the Black contribution to American art — is both apt and timely. It also highlights the disquietude of our times, in that nothing is certain, particularly our connection to things most dear. In a recent, wholly unexpected announcement, the Underground Museum let it be known it will be closing its doors indefinitely, and with it this wondrous exhibition comes to a close. Yet Noah Davis remains omnipresent in the hands of many present-day artists. Davis bridges notions of community, family, and the banalities of circadian life through a private oeuvre into his luminous, ever-enriching world.
Featured Image: Noah Davis. Untitled. 2015.
Courtesy of David Zwirner
Ricky Amadour is an interdisciplinary artist based in Los Angeles and New York City. Amadour investigates landscape, architectural forms, and our relationship as humans to built and natural environments. They received dual BA degrees in studio art and art history from the UCLA School of Arts and Architecture in 2018. For more information visit: www.amadour.com