Art Essays

Noah Davis: American Ethereal

By Drake's

Nov 3, 2023

Noah Davis: American Ethereal

Noah Davis liked to move quickly. His friend and mentor, the artist Henry Taylor, likened the way that he would burst into a room to Jerry Seinfeld, limbs and ideas spilling out before he’d even stepped through the door. “He was a leader,” Taylor added. “The chosen one.”

1975 (8), 2013

Born in Seattle in 1983, by the age of 17 Davis had already established his own studio, a prescient and unwavering dedication to art that would remain throughout his life. Davis referred to himself as a painter, but he was also a sculptor, curator and organiser. In 2012 he founded the Underground Museum in Los Angeles along with his wife, the sculptor Karon Davis, his brother and his sister-in-law, the film producer Onye Anyanwu, on the crumbling sites of a former church and El Salvadoran restaurant in Arlington Heights, a historically working-class neighbourhood.

The group’s aim was to bring museum-quality art “within walking distance” to the local community. Taylor called it Noah’s Ark. “Motherf*****g crazy, but he just did it.” 

“I just couldn’t do anything else,” Davis said of his approach on the eve of his first New York solo exhibition in 2009. “I’ve tried doing other things, but I’d rather fail at painting than try to be successful at something else.”

The Last Barbeque, 2008

In 2015, at the age of just 32, Davis died from a rare form of cancer. To look at one of his paintings now, eight years on, is to be moved into a world that the artist has preserved in amber and memory—pale dreams; a soft abyss. The subjects, often with their faces blurred by brushstrokes, a space and slight distance on the canvas, feel just out of reach. The critic Jerry Saltz called him a “Degas-like painter of hushed intimacy. His images of people in parks, kitchens, and under the stars are clouded in secondary tones and washes that bring his work to ghostly eternal life.”

While the black experience was a consistent theme, his influences were vast, drawing on architecture, surrealism, literature and greats like Lucien Freud, Francis Bacon, Marlene Dumas and Kerry James Marshall, as well as the more understated experience of daily life and his loved ones, often intertwined with an element of strangeness and quiet melancholy: ballet dancers en pointe in the twilight of a housing project; a young boy atop a unicorn framed by darkness.

40 Acres and a Unicorn, 2007

“If I’m making any statement, it’s to just show black people in normal scenarios, where drugs and guns [have] nothing to do with it,” Davis told Dazed in 2010. “You rarely see black people represented independent of the civil rights issues or social problems that go on in the States. I’m looking to move on from that stage. We can’t keep tying our culture to a movement that happened two generations ago.”

Painting for My Dad, 2011

If Davis has a masterpiece then it might be 2011’s Painting for my Dad, completed in the months following his father’s death. Against jagged rocks and the maw of a cave, a figure stands on the precipice, his back turned and shoulders hunched, a lantern in his left hand. The gentle palette gives the painting a sense of ephemerality. Rather than illuminating the night around him, the light in the figure’s hand is burning down to the wick. A slow fade to black. 

In the wake of his passing, it was Taylor who perhaps best summed up his friend's influence on the art world and those in his more immediate orbit, 

“He didn’t have a pool, so he bought an ocean.” 

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