New York

Jeff Davis

Kerry Schuss / KS Art

Sitting astride a giant, wailing, red-and-yellow severed head is a green-skinned naked man sporting an enormous erection. This supersize organ curves upward to support a cloud or platform on which is perched another head of the same size and color as the first. Hovering above this is a blue-skinned man who, while urinating freely, proffers a third head that spits blood into the gaping mouth of a fourth nearby. And holding this is a fifth and final head, bright green and equipped with arms that project from where its ears should be.

In most circles the subject of this untitled drawing from 2004 would be considered notably unusual, but in Jeff Davis’s New York solo debut at KS Art, such Rabelaisian pileups were disconcertingly commonplace. A tastefully installed selection of delicate watercolors, fine colored-pencil drawings, and small, pedestal-mounted wax sculptures, “My Deep Dark Pain is Love” demonstrated Davis’s ability to sneak extreme imagery into the most polite and conventional of formats. At times recalling the visceral excesses of Screaming Mad George’s F/X work on the teen horror movie Society (1989), Davis’s imagery suggests a convoluted personal mythology organized around the meeting of polymorphously perverse sexuality and ritualized, orgiastic violence.

That Davis’s figures are overwhelmingly male, nude, and bearded, and are often enveloped by mystic auras, does more than hint at religious symbolism (to which titles like The Many Beloved of He Who Sees, 2004, and The Bringer of Light, 2005, only contribute further). Yet the activities in which they are engaged can hardly be said to exemplify a moral ideal. Their featureless backgrounds offer no clues as to setting, but Sodom and Hades suggest themselves as likely possibilities. Theirs is an imperfectly allegorical realm in which complex indulgences and punishments are enacted with terrible inevitability but in the service of no obvious lesson. Depending on the extent of one’s imaginative laissez-faire, Davis’s baroque scenarios are either a bracing sensual workout or a nihilistic tease.

Yet while outwardly inconclusive and resolutely unspectacular, at least in formal terms, Davis’s enjoyment in the production of his work is palpable and infectious. His watercolor technique is simple and quick, allowing him to generate faint, Turin Shroud–like impressions whose ethereal rootlessness mirrors that of their otherworldly subjects. And his draftsmanship, part schoolboy doodle, part old-master sketch, is additionally spiced with a generous dash of outsiderish eccentricity that manifests itself in the devotion of particular attention to idiosyncratic details. It also has the improvisational momentum of a comic-book jam session or game of exquisite corpse—one gets the feeling that these couplings, multiples, and hybrids could continue indefinitely, spiraling off into the void.

The figures in Davis’s drawings and paintings tend to be stacked in precarious formations resembling human pyramids or the layers of a wedding cake, but his sculptures represent a more compact (though hardly restrained) mode of combination. Cast in ice-cream-colored wax from modified vintage rubber Halloween masks, they double up as monstrous candles and thereby extend a favored graphic motif—light and its absence—into the third dimension. Protruding teeth, melting eyeballs, and hideous wounds abound, and some heads boast two or three faces, all seemingly in conflict with one another, swallowing and being swallowed. The sculptures lack the furtive shock of the works on paper, but in the context of an installation—even one as modest as this—they redeem themselves as cheerfully grotesque punctuation. Davis’s twisted tribe has been quietly infiltrating New York for a few seasons now—here it finally got the chance to let loose.

Michael Wilson