Noah Davis, Mary Jane, 2008, oil and acrylic on canvas, 60 × 52 1⁄4".

Noah Davis, Mary Jane, 2008, oil and acrylic on canvas, 60 × 52 1⁄4".

Noah Davis

A girl clad in a wide-collared smock, knee-high socks, and black buckled shoes stands before a leafy green-and-black pattern, worked over in a thick impasto. Her dark skin and composed expression, by contrast, appear smooth, having been rendered in the artist’s characteristically dry paint application, which lends these figures their softness. Perhaps she’s posing on the first day of school. Just as the figure’s glinting gaze anchors the composition of this large-format work in oil and acrylic, the painting, titled Mary Jane, 2008, itself grounded the first London exhibition devoted to Noah Davis, which brought together works selected by Helen Molesworth from 2007 until the Los Angeles–based artist’s untimely death at the age of thirty-two in 2015.

Davis seemed to have a sense of painting as a medium well-equipped for sifting through time, transmuting what could be memories from his own childhood (for instance, of a boy being spanked by his mother in the rigid domestic scene Bad Boy for Life, 2007), just as he imagines his own son (dreamlike in thinned oil and acrylic, in Indigo Kid, 2010). He worked mostly from photographs, in the tradition of artists such as Luc Tuymans and Marlene Dumas. Davis’s paintings combine immediacy, conjured by a rich color palette full of vibrant, often dripping blues, with a timelessness—more precisely, a sense of being unstuck in time—that derives in part from his transtemporal source material. He worked, for instance, from a series of photographs shot by his mother, Faith Childs-Davis, as a teenager on Chicago’s South Side in the 1970s (as exemplified by the public swimming pool full of hazy figures in 1975 [9], 2013), and ones taken by his wife, sculptor Karon Davis, in Los Angeles (yielding the striking composition of Another Balcony, 2009, with its three figures peering out from behind the green lines of an elevated deck). The latter painting is marked by the specificity of LA that permeates Davis’s oeuvre, discernible in such details as the low roofs of the Pueblo del Rio housing projects designed by modernist Angeleno architect Paul Williams and more generally in the swaths of bright light that animate sections of many of the paintings.

Questions of time also came to the fore in the sense of urgency that imbued this overview of Davis’s brief and prolific career, bolstered by anecdotes in the exhibition catalogue highlighting his bursts of productivity as well as his wide-reaching ambitions beyond his painting, most significantly in the Underground Museum, a community space hosting museum-quality exhibitions, which he founded with Davis in LA’s working-class Black and Latinx Arlington Heights neighborhood in 2012. The exhibition’s top floor replicated the offices of the Underground Museum, with its bookshelves, patterned rugs, African sculptures, and exhibition models, underscoring that project as inextricable from his oeuvre. The ardent commitment to collectivity represented by the Underground Museum manifests more subtly in Davis’s paintings, in which so many of the figures are solitary. Their faces are often obscured or unresolved—Mary Jane is a notable exception—a tactic that leaves them unknowable and could, as such, position them as a counter to a cult of individualism. Noting the way the subjects of Lorna Simpson’s photography refuse to declare an identity, Okwui Enwezor called her work “negated portraiture”; such a term is instructive concerning the politics of representation in Davis’s painting. The withholding embedded in these works—in a face receding into shadow or obstructed by dashes of paint—is a refusal that kindles their transcendent qualities. For Davis, painting was a way of collapsing inherited images and imagined futures into a picture plane that was (and is) emphatically present.