Los Angeles

View of “Karon Davis,” 2016. From left: Morphine, 2016; Nicotine, 2016.

View of “Karon Davis,” 2016. From left: Morphine, 2016; Nicotine, 2016.

Karon Davis

View of “Karon Davis,” 2016. From left: Morphine, 2016; Nicotine, 2016.

Catharsis, according to the American Psychological Association, is “the discharge of previously repressed affects connected to traumatic events that occurs when these events are brought back into consciousness and reexperienced.” Karon Davis’s solo exhibition “Pain Management”could easily be described as cathartic, availing itself of the transformative powers of painful memories recalled. Davis’s two large-scale installations revealed the emotional depths of their maker. As the exhibition’s press release explained, they were based on a “hospital-bound” reality of illness, which Davis and her late husband—the artist Noah Davis, with whom she founded Los Angeles’s celebrated Underground Museum in 2012—experienced for many years during his treatment for cancer. Through Davis’s recounting, this reality was both fleshed out and theatricalized, the artist’s elegy giving way to mythology.

In an epic visualization of the passage from life to death, the first section of the exhibition featured a tableau of eight life-size bodies made of plaster, wire, and other materials. Three female nurses dressed in hospital scrubs served as psychopomps, their clothing and accoutrements littered with shredded medical bills. The effigies Morphine, Nicotine, and Ifosfamide (all works 2016) seemed to indicate both earthly and otherworldly purpose. Morphine, for example, was hunched over in exhaustion, delirium, or sorrow, with two giant shredded-bill angel wings affixed to her shoulders. As a tender of the sick, she appeared caught between life and the hereafter. Her colleague, Nicotine, smoked a cigarette, lost in thought.

The last of the trio, Ifosfamide (named for a drug used in cancer treatment), was hauntingly propped up like a scarecrow, looming over several of a second set of figures in the exhibition: the five bright-white plaster-cast sculptures from the series “The Children of the Moon,” which presented more hopeful or innocent spiritual manifestations. With angelic, masklike faces, and concavities where the backs of their heads should have been, “The Children of the Moon” were delicately posed seated, standing, or in recline, engaged in childish activities (closely observing a scarab beetle, catching a moonlike orb, gathering flowers). Despite their ghostlike ephemerality, they possessed an uncanny humanity, their glass eyes enlivening serene expressions. The figurative sculptures were installed around the nine-foot-tall Cry, Baby, a massive Kleenex box with a painterly floral motif and brand-name logo on its surface. This densely populated scene contrasted starkly with the desolate Waiting Room installed in a smaller chamber. An environmental replica of a standardized medical-center lobby, the piece was complete with New Age music, houseplants, magazines, tissue boxes, and a generic wall work that read, futilely, BELIEVE, DREAM, LIVE, SUCCEED, ACHIEVE. Much like its real-world counterparts, the space was sanitized of emotion, an anxiety-inducing purgatory.

One might situate Davis’s practice in a line of postwar figurative sculpture that includes the work of George Segal and Duane Hanson, realists with a keen eye for capturing the prosaic background characters that populate our daily experience and yet go largely unnoticed. But unlike these abjectly anonymous figures, Davis’s sculptures retain a sense of intimacy and kinship with their living models. Perhaps it’s more useful to recall lessons learned from artists such as Marisol, Alina Szapocznikow, and Paul Thek. In the work of these artists, the ordinary, mortal conditions of corporeality—the “stuff” of our humanity, of the people we know and love—is exaggerated to dreamy, ritualistic, and sublime extremes. If Davis’s figurative works embody a melancholy around death, they also navigate the heaviness with hopeful confidence. And they usefully remind us that when theories regarding mourning or trauma fail us, we can always rely on stories, the buried inner narratives that emerge when a painful experience is revisited and inscribed.

Catherine Taft