The Class Divide As A Threshold In The Paintings Of Late Artist Noah Davis

Noah Davis, Untitled, 2015, Oil on canvas (Courtesy the Estate of Noah Davis and David Zwirner)

I really can’t decide what’s more shocking: that Noah Davis painted the beautifully macabre images adorning the walls of his posthumous retrospective at David Zwirner before the artist was 33 years old, or that these gorgeous works were painted by someone who ever lived at all. So saturated with ghastly resignation and mourning, Davis’s paintings feel like they could have only been created by an artist with an ability to cross dimensions. An artist who can walk the border between life and death, time and timelessness. These are paintings that look like they could have been painted in the “other realms” of the late Polish surrealist writer Bruno Schulz’s story Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. “There is always this highly improper manipulation of time,” to paraphrase Schulz. 

Davis’s paintings exist in a setting where time is fluid. His characters are wedged in a place between life and death, or perhaps where such deliberations between life and death have no relevance or meaning. It’s not a “zone,” like in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, where people go to shift their perspectives and unlock the unearthed potential of the body without organs. No, these paintings depict a dimension in which people are too focused on their own survival to find time for that kind of privileged transcendence; they just are, shifting form in a malleable space that draws attention to a brutal meaninglessness and tragic will to self-discovery against an unforgivingly capitalist landscape.

Davis is of, what seems to be, a movement of black contemporary art that exposes the degradations of poverty, violence and market-oriented inequality, and in some ways, reads as a rejection of aspirational and neoliberalized narratives. Artists like Davis–as well as filmmaker Arthur Jafa, photographer Deana Lawson, collage-makers Frida Orupabo and Kandis Williams, and more–direct their and our gazes towards reality in all its grimness and the spectral horror saturating daily existence. Filmmaker Kahlil Joseph–Davis’s brother–makes films that could be grouped in with this new aesthetic as well.

Noah Davis, Pueblo del Rio: Arabesque, 2014, Oil on canvas (Courtesy the Estate of Noah Davis and David Zwirner)

Violence isn’t whitewashed out in these artists’ works, but manifests as a stylistic element (look towards the stylized gang murders in Joseph’s video for the Flying Lotus song “Until the Quiet Comes” for a demonstration of a particularly unflinching example of this aesthetic). These are artists that have moved beyond narrow concerns over representation and tried to re-materialize class as it intersects with–and to a degree overrides–race, gender, sexuality, and identitarian concerns. In much of culture (the art world being no exception), neoliberalism has made class invisible as a cultural signifier.  An artist like Jafa juxtaposes cinematic images of black cultural aspiration–pop stars like Kanye or Beyoncé and sports heroes among them–with images that excavate the historical legacies of neoliberalism: urban blight, street violence, police brutality. While focusing on similar historical inequities, Davis tends to eschew the images of success and status all together, instead painting what appear to be working class people, regular folks, if you will. He aestheticizes class consciousness through paintings that are visually compelling without dulling the dark cloud that always looms over working lives. Nietzsche said that to experience a thing as beautiful was to experience it “necessarily wrongly.” Davis took pains to emphasize precarity as a mystic darkness. 

The neoliberalism that has cannibalized the art world often rewards artists with very specific aesthetics. It is an industry that effectively functions as a money laundering scheme for financial capital oligarchs. These moneyed elites hardly want to be reminded of the legacies of poverty, inequality, and white supremacism that their wealth accumulation has contributed to when they buy paintings. Thus, some of the most financially successful artists of color have aesthetics that could be read as glamorous, aspirational, and not particularly indicting in their critiques of capitalism. For example, Kehinde Wiley’s Obama portrait painted after the former president left office was hailed by its curator at the National Portrait Gallery for being a lionization of “Obama’s bottom-up economics.” Obama–he who bailed out the banks, he who supervised the most heinous surveillance program in US history and demonized its whistle blowers, he who painted the Middle East red with his vicious drone policy–is emblematic of “bottom-up economics?” There is an almost stunning lack of political coherence to this sentiment. This isn’t art that challenges capitalism, it’s art that frankly feeds off of it.

Noah Davis, Isis, 2009, Oil and acrylic on linen (Courtesy the Estate of Noah Davis and David Zwirner)

To the degree that these artists–Davis, Jafa, Lawson, and others–are political, they feel more connected to the politics of theorists like Cornel West or Adolph Reed Jr., that tend to view racial politics through the prism of class consciousness, and critique neoliberals and Democrats of all races just as harshly as rightwing politicians. Reed dubbed the term “race reductionism” to describe the isolation of racial politics from class struggle. Jafa, after all, is of the few black artists to go on the record attacking Obama’s records on poverty, foreign policy, and surveillance to the same degree that Reed has (Reed infamously predicted Obama’s rise to power in a scathing 1996 op-ed in which he called the young politician from Chicago “the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance”): “It’s not like ‘we had a black president now we’re all good,’ and if you think like that you should be disabused of that thinking,” said Jafa in an interview with Louisiana Channel. “I’m very resistant to the kind of thinking that says if you have a white hat on you’re a good guy if you have a black hat on you’re a bad guy.”  

While Davis was certainly concerned with black art and often featured in specifically black group shows, both his work and his short life suggest an aversion to the kind of lip service that art world elites often pay to black artists and the black artists who seem to benefit the most from the structural inequities of late capitalism. After all, he and his wife opened The Underground Museum in a working class neighborhood in Los Angeles. Davis seemed most concerned with bringing artists who shared his material/Marxist-leaning analyses of racial life–Lawson, William Kentridge, and the photographer Roy DeCarava, among them–directly to working class people of color. Though the institution emphasizes it seeks to demonstrate “black excellence, not struggle,” it holds a particular place in the cultural imagination as a family run-institution fostering a unique sense of solidarity outside the mainstream–that is, finance capital-backed – art world.

What this indicates to me is making room in art for all the complexity of the political and social economies. Davis’s art isn’t about “making space” for his subjects, it’s about rendering the troubling and disheartening truths lived by working class people in late capitalism to canvas. Unlike Jafa’s or his brother Joseph’s films, however, the violence of Davis’s paintings isn’t explicit. It’s what Derrida would have called a “hauntological” or spectral presence. It evokes the strangeness and surrealism of the precarious and impoverished existences experienced by millions of people daily. Have you known what it’s like to wonder if you’re going to be able to make rent? Have you ever been hallucinatory with hunger but couldn’t justify the cash splurge on pasta? Poverty is intertwined with a specific dread and anxiety that paints daily living its own kind of Cthulhu myth. What is surrealism to the rich is just realism to the poor. The class divide is a threshold between worlds.

Noah Davis, Leni Riefenstahl, 2010, Oil on canvas (Courtesy the Estate of Noah Davis and David Zwirner)

Davis’s strength was in capturing the banal reality of working people as an unheimlich zone between space and reality; as in the stories of Schulz, time itself becomes a slippery notion in Davis’s work. While his paintings are clearly figurative, they also make efforts to present their subjects and settings ever so slightly off-kilter, exuding what Scott Indrisek calls a “dreamlike magnetism.” His figures are slightly mutant: they are missing mouths, their heads are misshapen, and their bodies are attenuated and Giacometti-esque. The backgrounds feel fluid and viscous indicating a world in flux in which finding one’s footing is a constant struggle. 

Walter Benjamin was concerned about photography’s tendency to beautify the conditions of poverty in capitalism. He saw in the work of photographers like Lewis Hine a tendency to yield images that amount to little more than poverty porn: “The camera is incapable of photographing a tenement or a rubbish heap without transfiguring it.” What paintings by artists like Davis produce is much more complex in their depictions of the lives of working people. Davis yields beauty and abjection in equal measures, allowing us to perceive the struggle as well as the strength of his subjects. Davis could produce a beautiful image without dulling the agony of the precarious life.

Noah Davis, Single Mother with Father Out of the Picture, Oil, acrylic, and graphite on canvas (Courtesy the Estate of Noah Davis and David Zwirner)

In Single Mother with Father Out of Picture, a mother in a chair, with her young daughter standing beside the chair, looks just to the right of and beyond the gaze of the viewer. They wear an expression of hurt, indeed, but there is also resolve. Davis doesn’t fetishize, but he does venerate his subjects. The difficulties of working class lives are not overlooked–on the contrary, they animate the haunting surrealism of the paintings over all–but Davis also seems to emphasize that these difficulties yield character. His figures share characteristics with those in Lawson’s photos in that, real or imagined, one can imbue them with personalities and implications of narrative. Gary Indiana once opined in his art column for the Village Voice: “People would like to see art that’s as reputable as literature, reflecting the real complexity of our lives as we race towards extinction.” Davis’s art was certainly about something, and even at its most enigmatic invites its viewers to project stories onto it. Like Lawson’s photographs, Davis’s paintings give us a piece of a narrative. He was less a storyteller than he was a story-suggester.

Helen Molesworth, the curator of Davis’s exhibition at Zwirner, described Davis’s taste in art as “pretty catholic,” as in broad and expansive. Davis found influences in historical touchstones such as Degas, De Chirico, and Kitaj and contemporaries like Kerry James Marshall and Marlene Dumas. But he was also a voracious consumer of images taking in countless vintage photographs and re-animating them through what seems to be a vivid imagination. Formally, the paintings exude daring and courageousness, even as they adhere to the central tenets of figurative painting retaining strong deference to a vision of the realistic world. What makes the work exceptional is pushing that realistic world into the realms of the weird and eerie. He collects an assortment of, what could be read as, rather banal imagery: a lineup of dancers or a diver, for example. But he then used stylistic cues to imbue the images with a sense of unease that we then associate as the emotions and stress of his subjects. Sometimes he did this subtly: a boy looks up an ominously empty staircase. Sometimes he did this obviously: a hunter holds the severed head of what looks to be a stereotypical alien being. Breton always associated surrealism with socialist values despite most of its artists living the lives of aristocratic bohemians. Davis used surrealism as a tool to emphasize socioeconomic despair.

Noah Davis, Bad Boy for Life, 2007, Acrylic, gouache, and conte crayon on canvas (Courtesy the Estate of Noah Davis and David Zwirner)

Especially on the level of family, working class life introduces a variety of stressors that often result in higher levels of mental illness and substance abuse. As stated above, Davis subtly emphasizes the impoverished angst of working life with just a slight hint of domestic horror and trauma. In an untitled painting from 2015, two women are splayed on a couch lost in sleep, physically and psychologically defeated by exhaustion. In a slightly more disturbing painting, Bad Boy for Life, a mother punishes her young son with a vigorous spanking taking out her frustration on the boy that would read as troubling by today’s parental standards. 

Noah Davis, Mary Jane, 2008, Oil and acrylic on canvas (Courtesy the Estate of Noah Davis and David Zwirner)

His paintings don’t all evoke gloom, however, and in some of the works, his subjects take on a vague deification that would appear to suggest an unbreakable spirit of the black American proletariat. In Mary Jane, for instance, a young girl adorned in the garb of the early 20th Century–bonnet and understated dress–appears in full profile before a backdrop of ominous skies and a kaleidoscopic swirl of figures that seem to resemble bats or birds, hard to tell which. She looks unbreakable, courageous, and worn down but not defeated.

Davis once told an interviewer that he found influence in Richard Brautigan’s 1968 novella In Watermelon Sugar and from this insinuation, one can detect a preoccupation with survival and all of its surrealist implications in his paintings. From this viewpoint, Davis’s paintings make us confront the terrifying notion that we are all actually surviving post-apocalypse right now. We’ve experienced the death of modernism, and the death of progress. And yet we are here, like Davis’s subjects, still surviving and moving forward. There is something profoundly tragic and triumphantly beautiful in that notion. Something very strange happens when a genius artist’s influence precipitously reverberates throughout society and culture after the artist is gone. It’s as if the artist’s soul becomes more real – more present – than when the artist was actually manifest flesh. 

Adam Lehrer is an artist, photographer and writer. Lehrer’s work consists of manipulated photography, collages made of mostly Internet sourced appropriated images, and video loops. He has had solo shows at Spring Break Art Show, Governor’s Island Art Fair, and has been featured in group shows. Lehrer is also a culture writer, and his art, film and music criticism has been featured in Autre Magazine, The Quietus, Forbes, VICE, Bedford & Bowery, Bullett Media, i-D, SSENSE, and more.

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