Noah Davis’ (1983-2015) paintings of interiors and surrealist scenes depict African-American subjects in both mundane settings and magical permutations of environments. In his work, he sought to show “black people in normal scenarios, where drugs and guns are nothing to do with it,” not out of line with great predecessors like Kerry James Marshall. With stylistic nods to Alice Neel, Marlene Dumas and Luc Tuymans, Noah Davis depicts his reality with an elegantly accessible gravitas.
In 2012, he founded the Underground Museum with his wife Karen Davis to bring museum-quality art to a historically working-class neighborhood in Los Angeles. His untimely death in 2015 coincided with his rise in art world recognition — as with all posthumous shows, the fact that these paintings are part of a legacy lends a certain gravity to the show’s ethos.
Despite knowing this, I was still astounded and wrought with an unexpected sense of nostalgia — bordering familiarity — stepping into Davis’ recent exhibition at David Zwirner.
One of the first pieces that struck me was 1975, a scene of a boy mid-dive at a public pool. The earthen turquoise pool is lined with umber bodies, fuzzily painted. Like a shallow depth of field photograph, this moment in time focuses on the diving figure and blurs the rest. The the color palette reminded me of the functioning of memory — choosing to capture certain parts of a moment while blurring others out.
Davis drew from quotidian scenes like these often, but infused them with livelihood and meaning.
Another (untitled) painting shows two and a half figures in a living room space: Two women peacefully slumped over on a couch and the legs of a man on another. An ajar door — barely separable from the background — reminds us of the privacy of this scene that Davis has given us privy to. Their bodies, in some areas highlighted with an Alice Neel-like (but more subtle) outline, barely separate from the interior. Parts of the background blend into them; parts of them blend into the background, perhaps showing us our dependency on the spaces we inhabit.
The list of paintings goes on: Painting For My Dad shows a frail man on the edge of cavernous ground, almost inseparable from the vast blackness of the night sky he stands against; Pueblo del Rio: Stain Glass Pants shows a close up of a colorfully-clad family crossing the street as the father bends over and retrieves something from the gutter; Untitled (Birch Trees) shows a dense birch forest with the suggestion of a figure strewn across the ground. In all these, Davis’ magic lies in his subtlety.
Even with two rooms of paintings, there were two that I found particularly striking: Pueblo del Rio: Arabesque and Pueblo de Rio: Concerto, two night scenes set in a public housing development in LA.
Pueblo del Rio: Arabesque features a beautifully off-kilter symmetry. Two lines of buildings perspectivally drawn into the center, with two lines of ballerinas mirroring the orthogonals. This nocturnal ballet is so odd, yet it somehow feels like it belongs — or demands to belong. The ballerinas, in turn, seem to demand why we question their presence: Why not hold a midnight ballet?
Pueblo del Rio: Concerto is a similar night scene, with the same deep purple sky as the backdrop for an even suburban skyline. Against the cold industrial environment, a pianist sits at a grand piano and his concert ensues. Just as in Arabesque, Davis seems to ask of us: Why not?
Noah Davis uses the everyday to talk about the magical. He uses beauty and absence to talk about presence and pain. In his absence, we can only hope that his paintings continue to speak for him.
Cecilia Lu is a sophomore in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.