From Seattle to Arlington Heights, Young Blood Blooms Eternal

The Frye's exhibit of work by brothers Noah Davis and Kahlil Joseph celebrates life, community and artistic creation in ways that few museum shows truly can.

Posted on April 21, 2016, 8:00 am
25 mins

We are trained to be obsessive yet superficial observers. Glancing around, it is easy to give into pettiness, and the art world is far from immune to this tendency. Young Blood: Noah Davis, Kahlil Joseph, The Underground Museum is graceful in its invitation to look deeper, through phenomena rather than recondite theory. The artists offer positive examples of creation for creation’s sake: Sincere works that are sometimes spontaneous, sometimes laborious, and undeterred by harsh circumstances.

Even Young Blood‘s critiques of market-driven creation and media never feel too bitter. It’s not uncommon to see artwork that ostensibly critiques the art world (e.g. institutions, lack of diversity, venality), but amounts to a self-referential indulgence. Even more galling—and more common—is the feckless stuff that admits to the insincerity of consumer culture, but cashes in instead of denouncing it, then offers opaque, theoretical justifications in retrospect.

Young Blood eschews theory for philosophy. The walls display quotes from Noah Davis, unabashed in his view that mark-making (especially painting) is a healing and mystical practice. Davis, a painter, and his brother, Kahlil Joseph, a filmmaker, both show a deliberate and narrative approach to composition: Painterly films and filmic painting. The human figure is often isolated, and whether it appears empowered or alienated depends greatly on the disposition of the viewer.

The brothers became acquainted with the show’s curator, Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes, when they were youths in Seattle. Alley-Barnes previously showed work at the Frye in the 2014 exhibition Your Feast Has Ended, concurrent with a retrospective of work by his father, Curtis R. Barnes. All of these artists, the Barneses and the brothers, grew up in Seattle and attended schools near the Frye, where they practiced and observed art. Davis and Joseph relocated to L.A. years ago, so this show is something of a homecoming, albeit a bittersweet one.

Noah Davis passed away from cancer last year. Davis was still making art and founding a new museum model at the time. The fate of the Young Blood exhibition became uncertain, but collectors and the Davis family stepped up to ensure that show would go on. The result is joyful in its devotion to art as the lifeblood of Davis and all artists who find in it healing and unity.

The fundamental rejection of purely commoditized art allows these artists to touch on pop and politics without becoming shrill or cheapening their invocations of the sacred. Davis and Joseph make numerous references to mysticism and sacred geometry, and not once do they feel contrived or deliberately esoteric. Rather, their appearance invites viewers to become more observant and seek the miraculous and the profound in things otherwise taken for granted. In essence, Young Blood doesn’t just make the artwork and its themes accessible; it invites everyone to think like an artist and become one.

I can’t stand “video art.” I’ve never, ever liked it. But I think everyone loves cinema. The most successful moving images should have some kind of basis in cinematic language, and that’s what is interesting to me; the ability to speak the many languages of cinema in a more direct way. I’m talking about symbols and dreams—mystical powers that have the ability to awaken the soul. -Kahlil Joseph

Both Joseph and Davis work in layers, universal symbolism and transient phenomena. Joseph’s installations at The Frye include a three-channel work projected on scrims that together generate a ghostly swirl of moving images; a two-channel work that stacks two screens vertically, putting simultaneity over linearity in his narrative; a documentary of blues singer Alice Smith in the studio. The audio and video of Alice™ (you don’t have to think about it) seem to come from two different recordings, so even the single screen becomes a point of fracture, of dislocation apt for the subject: A singer rehearsing while mourning the loss of her grandmother.

Joseph consistently mucks with time. His acclaimed short film Until The Quiet Comes stops time, reverses and splits it as it shows fragments of the lives and deaths (and afterlives?) of two young men. In his video for FKA Twigs’ Video Girl, Joseph disrupts the song and departs from its lyrical content to put it all in the context of a man’s execution by lethal injection. Less brutal but no less poignant is his collaboration with artist Martine Syms, Memory Palace. Syms narrates the emotional effects of finding an old photo album. The footage stars Alice Smith, moving through various environments. Between takes, we see static shots of digitized photos overlaying text files—layer upon layer. During Young Blood‘s time at The Frye, there will be screenings of work by Joseph, which I hope will include some of these. All can be seen online, but on the large screen and in the context of the show, they will be appreciated in a different way.

Still from Dawn in Luxor featuring Grace Maharay

Still from Dawn in Luxor, 2016, by Kahlil Joseph. Image courtesy of the Frye Art Museum.

Noah Davis also layered his work extensively, building paintings atop older ones. On close examination you can see the evidence of it—faint, ghostly outlines of the image beneath. It would have been more expedient for Davis to start from a fresh canvas, and avid collectors and dealers might have been delighted to see three painting on three canvases instead of three layered atop each other. Davis’ priorities were not commercial, or creating quantity over quality. If a painting had served its purpose in the process of being created, he would not treat it as precious. By becoming an underpainting, it acquired a new purpose by adding textures like a faded memory to the surface of another work. Though we say ars longa, vita brevis, artworks are also ephemeral and the act of creation has more intangible effects than tangible.

They are all deeply personal works, and viewers will be personally affected in unpredictable ways. My two favorites from the show are both portraits of Noah’s wife, Karon. One is painted from a picture of her as a child, seated on her bed in striped pajamas, hands folded neatly in lap. Sounds charming, right? Well, no. The title, “1984,” alludes to both the year the photo was taken and recalls the paranoia of Orwell’s novel. Everything is unsettled about this picture: Perspective, color, lighting, from the mottled, neon pink of the wall behind the child to macabre, white mask over her head.

Noah Davis' portrait of Wife Karon Davis, titled Isis

Noah Davis, “Isis,” 2009. Image courtesy of The Frye Art Museum.

Compare and contrast with “Isis,” painted in 2009: The discrete elements are again unsettled and the light is intense, but the poise of its subject is completely different. In the jumble of objects, beneath a bough that throws a cloud of shadows across the top of the composition, Karon stands confident, flanked by two large folding fans, centering her in a golden circle, a pair of wings. By association with the Ancient Egyptian goddess of nature and the divine feminine, Davis affirms that the sacred is not some exterior thing to be worshiped (or imposed), but an ideal that is only given life through the personal, even the seemingly mundane.

The most numerous works from Davis at Young Blood are not the paintings for which he is known, but small mixed-media collages applied to drawing paper, which he made in his final year. Ephemera from news and entertainment media are pieced together and then layered with pigments and inks. Themes of mortality and police brutality appear frequently. They were aesthetic exercises, responses to the moment’s preoccupations, which allowed Davis to keep creating outside of a studio setting, from the kitchen table to the hospital bed.

Noah Davis, "The Internal Contract," 2009. Image courtesy of The Frye Art Museum.

Noah Davis, “The Internal Contract,” 2009. Image courtesy of The Frye Art Museum.

Also made late in Davis’ career are various sculptures and paintings, all self-conscious knock-offs of postmodern, “readymade” works by the likes of Jeff Koons, Marcel Duchamp and Dan Flavin. Davis assembled them for a show titled The Imitation of Wealth, a response to the somewhat arbitrary way in which monetary value is assigned to works and how the consequent preciousness actually prevents the works from doing what they were (ostensibly) meant to do: To be seen and to inspire.

This inaccessibility is the inspiration for the The Underground Museum, which Davis co-founded with his wife, Karon, in Arlington Heights, Los Angeles. The Frye’s role in the formative years of Joseph and Davis was not the only reason that it was chosen for this exhibition; removing barriers, mental and financial, was central to Davis’ artistic practice and philosophy, and the Frye is always free to the public, just like The Underground Museum. Both museums emphasize that an institution should not just be a repository of objects, but should be generative within their communities.

Davis encountered reluctance from virtually every institution that he contacted for artworks to show in The Underground Museum, whose lack of pedigree and location initially raised more eyebrows than interest. Between the commercial strips of La Brea and Miracle Mile to the north and the gentrified, gallery-laden circle of Culver City to the south, Arlington Heights is densely populated but appears desolate. It has limited retail and restaurants, let alone cultural centers. The Underground Museum was built in a row of unassuming storefronts, rebuilt as galleries, an office and a small studio for Kahlil Joseph.

For Davis, it was vitally important that youths in the neighborhood have access to world-class artworks in a space where their own creativity could be nourished. The Underground Museum is his bold experiment, and despite the initial freeze Davis encountered when seeking artworks, the institution now has a firm relationship with MOCA and budding ties with other collections. Davis left around a dozen show concepts, which were really just lists of works to be shown. The team at The Underground Museum will continue to stage these shows in coming years, fleshing out the curatorial vision with writing from scholars and staff, and perhaps new works. The current show, for example, includes a recent donation from Theaster Gates, now part of the museum’s own permanent collection.

It is worth devoting some attention to what is happening at the Los Angeles location, as this will illuminate parts of the show one may not otherwise understand.

Non Fiction at The Underground Museum

The new show at The Underground Museum, Non Fiction, is the first show of around a dozen whose works were selected by Noah Davis. Its diverse media are united in their focus on black bodies and, especially, violence against them. A 1949 portrait by Marion Palfi is of a woman in obvious distress. This was the first portrait taken of the widow of a lynching victim. The wall on which it hangs is covered with wallpaper of an unsettling pattern, a Robert Gober work whose title says it all: “Hanging Man/Sleeping Man.”

On the opposite side of the building, a massive painting by Henry Taylor features a burly black male form at center, with the title stenciled in large letters on a grey wall behind him: “Warning Shots Not Required,” a phrase used on signage in prison yards in the last century. Taylor, like Davis, works in layers, and the wall and even the ground itself give way to patches of blue sky, while other figures and faces around the painting expand the narrative. Like the face of the man, it is a pensive and melancholy work that does not let go of hope or humanity.

Meanwhile, the glossy, whitish surface of Kerry Jame Marshall’s diptych “Heirlooms and Accessories” seems quite benign at first, only to reveal something much more sinister. In each, the unprepossessing face of a woman is isolated in a locket, staring out at the viewer. It appears merely sentimental…until one notices the yellowish patches across the white surface, in which one can make out other faces, and figures hanging overhead. I nearly came out of my skin when I realized that I was looking at that infamous photo of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. Though almost bleached into oblivion, the proud hatred in the face of the man at center is still evident, pointing at the bodies—a threat of others to come.

Even the most nuanced works at Non Fiction will not change the hearts and minds of unabashed bigots and apologists for state violence, who both downplay the continuing disruption of communities of color and the deadly violence and incarcerations that have been highlighted in protests and the Black Lives Matter movement. This show is not for the apologists, nor is it an extension of the simplified manifestos of protest groups. This show (and Young Blood) emphasizes nuance and creative activity. It calls of viewers to not have their perspicuity blunted by party lines or their own creative urges dulled by the narrow tastes of a mainstream market. Importantly, Non Fiction doesn’t exclusively show distress. Portraiture by Deana Lawson is filled with peace and dignity–a couple in an Edenic patch of forest (“Mama Goma, Gemena, DR Congo”); two black cowboys riding horseback at night in Georgia.

Which brings us back to Young Blood: Kahlil Joseph’s short film Wildcat (Aunt Janet) takes as its subject the all-black rodeo subculture in the midwest, and is presented in the gallery as a three channel installation, wherein the screens are arranged in a triangle, suspended from the ceiling. The dreamy images flow over one another in a pale cloud, above a dark triangle of soil from Grayson, OK, (formerly known as Wildcat, OK) where the film was made. Grayson’s way of life defies stereotypes that relegate blackness to the cities and whiteness to the plains. In this dichotomy, black bodies are always just denizens, while rugged white individualism claims the land itself, toward a manifest destiny. In the spaghetti westerns of the early 20th century, cowboys became symbolic of an expanding order, a new spiritual claim to the land by and for white people. And yet in the Reconstruction Era, all-black settlements, such as Nicodemus in Kansas, were established by former slaves migrating from the south, and their little-known legacy persists in places like Grayson.

Wildcat is first and foremost a dreamy meditation on a place and time, and “urban = black” simplifications begin to break down without a word. The soil is not just part of the evidence (worked over with dung and detritus), but symbolic of the vitality of the land to the community, whose boundaries offer some degree of sanctuary.

A still from Wildcat (Aunt Janet), 2016 by Kahlil Joseph

A still from Wildcat (Aunt Janet), 2016 by Kahlil Joseph. Image courtesy of The Frye Art Museum.

In the adjacent gallery, a long, shallow planter hems other soil in a rectangle of pale stone. It brims with a variety of flora with purple foliage and flowers (all fake, as the humidity generated by a plot this size would degenerate the walls and the artworks). Titled “The Sacred Garden,” it, too, points to the way in which the sacred in our minds is often generated by an act of enclosure, into which we pour our heart and best intentions. It, too, points to another place.

Back to The Underground Museum: Behind the building, there lies an oasis, filled with hundreds of plants, dozens of species with purple foliage and flowers, a color that figures prominently in many of Davis’ paintings. This Purple Garden was made in honor of his late father, Kevan Davis, and provides a year-round retreat for visitors to read, meditate, converse and create. On some evenings, films are projected onto the exterior of an adjacent building. The garden becomes a living symbol of the museum’s generative power, one that spills out into the open air, where sculpture, film and storytelling exist together.

Untitled painting by Noah Davis displayed at the end of "The Sacred Garden."

Noah Davis, “Untitled,” 2015. Displayed at the end of “The Sacred Garden.” Image courtesy of the Frye Art Museum.

“The Sacred Garden” at the Frye refers to this place, but remains its own manifestation of philosophies in the work of the two brothers: A regard for plurality, for essential and natural phenomena; a sense of stewardship, generation and regeneration; a comfort with limitations that we work within and overcome, creating for creation’s sake.

In one of the wall texts, Davis is quoted as saying:

Ultimately, I want to change the way people view art, the way people buy art, the way they make art.

We do not lack for spectacle, nor do we lack for quieter, humbler art. The latter may be lost in the din of the former, but those who know where to seek it can find it again. What are rare are the places where quieter gestures can be appreciated, shared and generated communally. There’s plenty of talk about “community” and “engagement” in the rhetoric of civic leaders, but too often they lack the genuine conviction and vision required to build a legacy, not just a container. The Frye continues to display that kind of legacy. The Underground Museum is just starting its own…and may even inspire other places like it.

It took a village to create The Underground Museum. It will take a village to maintain it and to endow it with a living purpose. Legacy itself can become a sort of object and commodity, the sort of thing that Davis and Joseph do not entertain in their work.

Paint over the work that no longer serves you. Splice up and repurpose those fleeting moments caught on film. The line is drawn again between preserving one’s ego by coveting its artifacts and renewing oneself through the creative process. No one can do it for you, but Young Blood models how it is done. It’s a sanguine celebration of the artistic spirit that is, in fact, the best of the human spirit. In spite of all the upheaval and the sadness in the world…let us cultivate our garden.

Young Blood is on display at the Frye Art Museum through June 19.

T.s. Flock is a writer and arts critic based in Seattle and co-founder of Vanguard Seattle.