Noah Davis, painter, installation artist and founder of Los Angeles' Underground Museum died recently at the age of 32. Known for his figurative paintings, Davis strived to convey the everyday lives of African Americans outside of popular stereotypes and static traditional images. In an interview with Dazed magazine in 2010, Davis asserted, " If I'm making any statement, it's to just show black people in normal scenarios, where drugs and guns are nothing to do with it." Davis instead chose to describe his works as "instances where black aesthetics and modernist aesthetics collide."
Davis' ascendance within the art world began in an unexpected manner. After dropping out of Cooper Union School of Art because he said "it wasn't teaching [him] anything," Davis moved to the West Coast where he found a job in MOCA LA's bookstore. Davis cited the bookstore as being his strongest teacher in the area of art history. Their wide collection of modern art books introduced him to a departure from curricula typically taught in art school and influenced his own developing artistic tastes. In addition to Davis' informal education in art, he continued to hold connections with notables in the art world like Dash Snow and Ed Templeton. Templeton is credited with encouraging Davis to continue to paint. After showing his work in a variety of galleries across the U.S. and England, Noah Davis and his wife, artist Karon Davis, founded the Underground Museum in 2010.
Situated in the Arlington Heights neighborhood west of downtown L.A., Davis transformed a series of storefronts and a small church into a non-profit art space, screening room, and garden. Within this space, Davis fulfilled his vision of bringing compelling art and challenging shows to a neighborhood setting typically lacking such access. Since its opening, the Underground Museum has featured a number of shows including "The Oracle," which featured a wide range of African diasporic pieces including 19th century Sudanese carvings, the work of Henry Taylor, and Ruby Neri. It also featured a video installation by Kahlil Joseph, Noah Davis' brother. Entitled, "m.A.A.d," his work depicts life in Compton nearly two decades after the Los Angeles riots to a Kendrick Lamar soundtrack. It granted a kinetic addition to the 200-year span of African and African inspired art found across the rest of the exhibit.
Last year, I had the privilege of visiting "The Oracle" as well as speaking with Davis over the phone about his museum and his exhibit. He spoke extensively about his desire to place African American art into the grander schema of African diasporic art. "So often it seems black artists shy away from African inspired art in the same way black intellectual issues create distance from urban hip-hop," he told me. Instead, "The Oracle" embraced the African heritage of African American and Western artists, in general, and even the title of the exhibit reflected the necessity to draw upon the fullness of Africa's artistic legacy and impact. Davis challenged me to explore the full meaning of the word, "Oracle."
"If you look at the word, Oracle, it is someone granting wise decisions. This show displays the ancestral relationship between African and African American work. By mixing traditional African pieces -- like the Sudanese wood carving -- next to more modern African American work like that of Henry Taylor, African American art is placed within the African context. Many of these pieces were just 'hanging out' and for me they served as my own artistic Oracle," he said.
He also spoke of the connections between the Underground Museum and "The Oracle": "The Underground Museum fits pieces together and 'The Oracle' works to do that in its own specific way. I think my thesis would be that through works like these, we can see ourselves as clearly a part of the African diaspora." As Davis constantly critiqued the Eurocentric quality of the Western world's art canon, he said his presentation of "The Oracle" inherently argued that there was a broader African influence on great art movements. "Often the place of African art within the canon is questioned," he said, "though it has clearly influenced the expanse of modern art. Exhibits like 'The Oracle' are not new, they go back decades through Dadaism, [Alfred] Stieglitz, and a wide range of African impersonations. African art has inspired many great artists and still there is a search for legitimation." For Davis, his exhibit did not work to legitimize African art within the art world, but to acknowledge its existing legitimacy.
Other Underground Museum exhibits like "The Imitation of Wealth" critiqued the accessibility of art and featured a recreation of high-end works like Jeff Koons' vacuum cleaner piece and Marcel Duchamp's bottle rack. The placement of such recreations in his Arlington Heights museum again extended the dialogue regarding access and placement of art. It critiqued rarefied pieces found only in rarefied spaces.
Davis stood as a vibrant and innovative artist noted for questioning the art world and its canon. As an ongoing critic of the placement and categorization of art he even considered questioning the art world's definition of his own work based upon his race. In a 2010 interview with the newspaper, The Stranger, he commented, "For a while I thought I was being put in a box. But it's the most glamorous box I've ever been in, so whatever."