Noah Davis: Selected Press

Noah Davis, who sadly died of cancer in 2015 at aged 32, left behind over 400 paintings, collages, and sculptures. With his wife, the artist Karon Davis, and his brother, artist Kahlil Joseph, Davis cofounded The Underground Museum, a Black-owned-and-operated gallery in Arlington Heights in LA.

The Underground Museum’s ‘backroom’ has been recreated at David Zwirner London as part of an exhibition of Davis’ work organised by Helen Molesworth. Also on show is a sculpture by Karon Davis, furniture designed by Davis’ mother and a screen showing BLKNWS by Kahlil Joseph. This communal feeling echoes something of the generosity that Noah Davis displayed in life; yet his work so often depicted solitary figures. So often, he painted, as Leah Ollman put it in a review when the artist was still alive, ‘with the chromatic and emotional palette of an old soul wanting to reconnect with something lost’.

It’s all too human to want to connect with a great talent, who you can’t help but feel, would have gone on to achieve so much more. But Molesworth would warn us not to get too swept up in such heady emotions. Introducing the New York iteration of the exhibition at the beginning of 2020, the writer and curator said, ‘there wasn’t a tragic bone in the man’s body’.

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PROTEAN PAINTER NOAH DAVIS had emerged as a catalytic force when he died of cancer at age thirty-two. His swift evolution promised an exciting future, as did the Underground Museum, an alternative exhibition space in a working-class Los Angeles neighborhood, that Davis founded with his wife, Karon. From 2007 until 2015, the year of his death, Davis portrayed African American daily life with an eye for the improbable: a girl sits astride a giant snail; a young man holds a slippery-looking creature in Man with Alien and Shotgun. In this new monograph, fellow painter Henry Taylor muses about his friend: “That motherfucker painted hard.” The intensity Taylor describes isn’t immediately apparent in Davis’s canvases; initially we see an empathetic observation of domesticity rendered with an alluring delicacy. But a closer look reveals a painterly complexity that often serves disquieting and even ominous narratives. There is much to be discovered in the backgrounds and corners of Davis’s seemingly ordinary scenes. In The Casting Call, several women dancers assume a version of ballet’s fifth position—their arms forming an arch above their heads—except for one, who stands with her head bowed in sadness, her arms hanging. Does she anticipate rejection, or does she regret this ritual of self-display? With its folksy title and straightforward presentation of a young girl wearing a kerchief and striped pinafore, Mary Jane masks, for a moment, its eeriness. The otherworldly quality of the lushly agitated background both accentuates the girl’s realistic depiction and suggests the presence of chaos, even threat. While the geometrically patterned clothes vie for attention with the commotion behind, the girl’s impassive face occupies a transfixing center point on the canvas. Once felt, the tension beneath the painting’s evident charms grows seductively potent and soon dominates the viewer’s experience. Davis did indeed paint hard.

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Noah Davis’ paintings excavate the lives of ordinary Black Americans, capturing quiet, fantastical, lonely, and profound scenes from their everyday lives. Immortalising these poignant moments in the history of his people was a part of Davis’ deep vocation to preserve Black memories, stories, and folklore that weren’t represented in the canon. In the process of doing so, he also bequeathed the world something incredibly precious of himself that would endure beyond his all-too-brief 32 years.

Despite the brevity of his life, Davis left behind an extraordinary body of work amounting to over 400 paintings, collages, and sculptures. This prolific artist also co-founded The Underground Museum along with his widow, artist Karon Davis, and his brother, artist and BLKNWS creator Kahlil Joseph. This entirely Black-owned-and-operated gallery remains dedicated to bringing museum-quality art to Arlington Heights, a disadvantaged Black and Latinx suburb of Los Angeles.

With a book shop selling Black literature and an outdoor space hosting events, yoga, and meditation classes, The Underground Museum not has only become a valued local resource but it’s also achieved international recognition as a cultural highlight for visitors to LA, attracting the likes of Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar who both used the venue to launch albums. It’s also a testament to the will, energy, and ambitious vision of its creators, as well a providing material proof that such a prodigious project can actually be realised. 

In the first presentation of Davis’ work in the UK, a new exhibition at David Zwirner features over 20 of the artist’s most seminal works alongside models of previous exhibitions curated by Davis at The Underground Museum. The London gallery will also recreate The Underground Museum’s “backroom” – modelled on the real working offices at the heart of the museum’s operation. 

Visitors to the exhibition will also have the chance to experience Kahlil Joseph’s BLKNWS, the artwork-come-news-network offering an antidote to harmful representations of the Black community in the news cycle. The show will also feature a sculpture by artist Karon Davis, the artist’s widow, and Shelby George furniture, designed by Davis’ mother, Faith Childs-Davis.

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Pleasure is an important form of knowledge, and in art, pleasure comes from the bodily confirmation of seeing things in the flesh. That form of knowledge slipped away early this year. In our diminished physical spaces of quarantine, we could no longer take part in that ancient discourse of pleasure, and a pensive somnambulance set in. Then, in late May, the pressure of the pandemic was forcibly mixed with things that have lingered in the American night since our founding — and they exploded. The George Floyd protests initiated the next stage: Everyone went out again, all at the same time. We rediscovered one another. And something else too: the bodily confirmation of the town square, where activism could become a form of creativity.

This year reconfigured everything. Experiencing art in galleries and museums, being together, has taken on a new urgency, with added density and intensity. Nothing is neutral here. We’re now hyperaware that art lives in mutinous, contested space.

A thrilling discovery and a terrible loss. In this show organized by curator Helen Molesworth, Davis — who died in 2015 at age 32 — was revealed as a Degas-like painter of hushed intimacy. His images of people in parks, kitchens, and under the stars are clouded in secondary tones and washes that bring his work to ghostly eternal life.

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An early sign of the New Year’s strengths was a solemnly beautiful survey of the truncated career of the painter Noah Davis (1983-2015) at David Zwirner in mid-January. Davis combined realist figuration with touches of painterliness and color that added a resonant symbolism and elegiac calm to his scenes of almost-everyday African-American life. The display came to seem like the start of an amazing run of gallery shows by Black artists this season. They included Walter Price at Greene Naftali; Titus Kaphar at Gagosian (through Dec. 19); Ficre Ghebreyesus at Galerie Lelong; Leilah Babirye at Gordon Robichaux; Jonathan Lyndon Chase at Baby Company; Gideon Appah at Mitchell-Innes & Nash (through Dec. 5); Tschabalala Self at Eva Presenhuber (through Dec. 19); Nina Chanel Abney at Jack Shainman (through Dec. 23); and Theaster Gates at Gagosian (through Jan. 23, 2021). And reigning over them all is “Rope/Fire/Water,” an overdue survey of Howardena Pindell’s alternating forays into abstract painting and politics at the Shed (through April 11).

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“Noah davis believed in the power of art.” this is curator Helen Molesworth, speaking to Flaunt on the eve of the release of the landmark monograph she edited on the late Los Angeles artist, whose dual-mode career encompassed a breathtaking painting practice and the establishment of the game-changing public gallery, The Underground Museum, in West Ad- ams, Los Angeles. Both of these arcs were cut short when Davis tragically died at the age of 32 in 2015—and yet through the dedication of his extended art and blood families, both dreams continue to not only endure but to blossom. 

“He had the career of someone twice his age,” says Molesworth, adding that, “the sheer undeniability of his body of work” manifests in every single plate. Across visceral and elegantly rendered genre and domestic scenes and complexified portraits, as this fully illustrated book demonstrates, when it came to Davis’ studio practice, there truly were no unsatisfying pieces. He created with verve and studied hard, but even among friends and colleagues he talked more about The Underground Museum than about his own art. In his short lifetime, he had a handful of critically acclaimed shows in Los Angeles, New York, and Seattle, all of which sold out; the pieces whisked off to private collections and the occasional institution. And so for Molesworth, the chance to work with mega-gallery David Zwirner to curate a comprehensive career survey and publish the accompanying book was finally a chance to show the scope of his brilliance to everyone—and to situate his art within the context of The UM, and (vice versa). 

“The mind of this person produced a whole world,” says Molesworth. “He was a world-builder both in the paintings and in his life.” An imitable merger of hard-core art history with the frankness of lived experience was the energetic core of both the aesthetic and the mission. “The UM was born fully formed as a concept,” Molesworth says, “It was immediately legendary.” 

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LOS ANGELES — The low-slung building on Washington Boulevard here might seem like a nondescript storefront sandwiched between a carpet installation business and a lawn mower repair shop.

But in the eight years since it was founded, the Underground Museum has become not only one of the most important destinations for black art in the country but also a crucial gathering place for its working class Arlington Heights neighborhood — with a bookstore featuring works by black writers, poetry readings in the wooden bar and events in its back garden including free meditation, yoga and movie screenings.

As cultural institutions all over the world wrestle with how to bring art to the public during the pandemic, smaller ones like the Underground Museum are also trying to figure out how to continue serving communities that have come to rely on them in other ways.

“It’s not just pretty pictures we’re putting on the wall,” said Karon Davis, an artist who created the museum with her husband, the painter Noah Davis, who was the moving force behind the Underground and died in 2015 of a rare cancer at age 32. “We’re actually doing a lot of work for the community.”

Most immediately, the Underground — which is not planning layoffs — is trying to minister to its public by helping deliver produce, continuing its weekly meditation program via Instagram and working to create a neighborhood support program even as residents adjust to life without the museum.

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