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“Single Mother with Father Out of the Picture” (2007–2008)
Noah Davis, “Single Mother with Father Out of the Picture” (2007–2008)© The Estate of Noah Davis Courtesy The Estate of Noah Davis and David Zwirner

Noah Davis’ poignant paintings depict the everyday lives of Black Americans

As the extraordinary work of the late painter Noah Davis makes its UK debut, we talk to the artist’s widow and the exhibition’s organiser about the renowned painter’s legacy

Noah Davis’ paintings excavate the lives of ordinary Black Americans, capturing quiet, fantastical, lonely, and profound scenes from their everyday lives. Immortalising these poignant moments in the history of his people was a part of Davis’ deep vocation to preserve Black memories, stories, and folklore that weren’t represented in the canon. In the process of doing so, he also bequeathed the world something incredibly precious of himself that would endure beyond his all-too-brief 32 years.

Despite the brevity of his life, Davis left behind an extraordinary body of work amounting to over 400 paintings, collages, and sculptures. This prolific artist also co-founded The Underground Museum along with his widow, artist Karon Davis, and his brother, artist and BLKNWS creator Kahlil Joseph. This entirely Black-owned-and-operated gallery remains dedicated to bringing museum-quality art to Arlington Heights, a disadvantaged Black and Latinx suburb of Los Angeles.

With a book shop selling Black literature and an outdoor space hosting events, yoga, and meditation classes, The Underground Museum not has only become a valued local resource but it’s also achieved international recognition as a cultural highlight for visitors to LA, attracting the likes of Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar who both used the venue to launch albums. It’s also a testament to the will, energy, and ambitious vision of its creators, as well a providing material proof that such a prodigious project can actually be realised. 

In the first presentation of Davis’ work in the UK, a new exhibition at David Zwirner features over 20 of the artist’s most seminal works alongside models of previous exhibitions curated by Davis at The Underground Museum. The London gallery will also recreate The Underground Museum’s “backroom” – modelled on the real working offices at the heart of the museum’s operation. 

Visitors to the exhibition will also have the chance to experience Kahlil Joseph’s BLKNWS, the artwork-come-news-network offering an antidote to harmful representations of the Black community in the news cycle. The show will also feature a sculpture by artist Karon Davis, the artist’s widow, and Shelby George furniture, designed by Davis’ mother, Faith Childs-Davis.

Take a look through the gallery above to view some of Davis’ extraordinary paintings. Below, we chat to artist Karon Davis and the exhibition’s organiser, Helen Molesworth, about Noah Davis’ position in the lineage of great figurative painters, The Underground Museum’s place in the cultural geography of Los Angeles, and the emotional charge of the paintings going on display.

How would you define the mission of The Underground Museum?  

Karon Davis: The mission has always been to serve the people what is deemed unattainable due to systemic inequality. Art, education, wellness, and safe space. Art is the gateway to these things and the museum is a nest that holds all of it together. Yes, we show museum-quality art, but it is not just about the beautiful work, but the bodies and souls that enter our doors. What we strive for is to nurture and inspire everyone.

Could you share with us what you love in particular about Noah’s extraordinary paintings?  

Karon Davis: This is hard to answer because I am not looking at them as a viewer disconnected from the work. They hold memories and stories for me. I guess you can call it a holistic perspective. What is special about them is that they are a piece of him. They capture moments in time. Yes, I see his extraordinary hand, his talented eye for colour, his haunting yet beautiful subjects. But most of all they become portals into memories.

Noah left 18 curatorial proposals for the museum, four of which have been realised already. Can you tell us about what he envisaged for any of the remaining proposals?

Karon Davis: I’m sorry I can’t answer this question. If I do I might have to kill you.

What would you say are the recurring themes that run throughout his work?  

Karon Davis: He wanted to put work into the world that was missing from the canon – Black people as subjects; our stories and expressions. He tells these stories with irony and humour. He excavates our history in paintings… the removal of Egyptian artefacts, the legend of Osiris, the bombing of Greenwood Oklahoma (the Tulsa massacre) to name a few. The paintings often also have an element of fantasy with unicorns, monsters, and aliens. 

Helen Molesworth: Firstly, Noah had a very unusual palette – his colour sensibility is quite distinct – and you can see that throughout his body of work. He was really interested in loneliness, solitude, and the built architectural environment. He was also deeply interested in the everyday lives of Black people in the United States, as well as the culture – the extraordinary culture – being produced by Black Americans.

Please could you talk us through the David Zwirner exhibition?  

Helen Molesworth: As some of your readers may know, this is our second exhibition of Noah Davis’ work at the David Zwirner gallery, and the first-ever solo presentation of his work in London. A couple of the works from the New York show will be included in this iteration, but most will be different. It’s a remarkable collection of works that will cover the span of Noah’s short but expansive career. It will also feature an entire room modelled on the offices of the Underground Museum, including a sculpture by Karon Davis, Noah’s widow, and a film work by Kahlil Joseph, the artist’s brother.

Helen, for anyone who hasn’t encountered Noah Davis’ painting, could you describe his work? 

Helen Molesworth: Noah Davis was a figurative painter with a keen awareness of the history of art – both Western and non-Western – and his paintings tend to be moody, realistic, beautiful scenes of the everyday sublime.

You beautifully described Noah’s paintings as being “modest in scale while being emotionally ambitious”. Please could you elaborate on that?  

Helen Molesworth: The paintings themselves don’t occupy the space of the mural, they don’t take up the whole wall, they don’t participate in the grand tradition of history painting that we see someone like Kerry James Marshall doing, and they aren’t large atmospheric paintings like Frank Bowling. But the emotional quality of them is deeply searching. They are often lonely and tender, beautiful, and confusing. He would explore complementary and contradictory feelings in the same work.

In what ways have you observed The Underground Museum positively impacting the local community and beyond?  

Helen Molesworth: The Underground Museum has a very special place in the cultural landscape of LA. It truly is a meeting place for artists from all disciplines – the art world, music, Hollywood… I think that extends to a kind of international diaspora of cultural folk, too. Everybody crosses paths there. It’s become the kind of place that even visitors to LA, whether from near or far, know they need to check out. It’s also bricks-and-mortar proof that you can start your own museum, from scratch. It’s one thing to shake up an institution, it’s another to create one from the ground up.

In the lineage of figurative paintings and painters, where do you see Noah Davis’s work situated?

Helen Molesworth: Noah was an extraordinary painter. On the one hand, I see him running with the big dogs, like Kerry James Marshall, and Luc Tuymans. On the other hand, he was very much part of his generation – akin to the likes of Martin Wong, Leidy Churchman, and Henry Taylor.

Noah Davis is on display at David Zwirner (24 Grafton Street, London) until November 17, 2021