One of the most upsetting things about media culture today is that we often wait until people die to honor them and discuss the significance of their work. It’s a double-edged sword, though, in that these moments sometimes bring an artist’s work a degree of instant attention it might otherwise achieve more gradually, perhaps never at such a concentrated level. Such is, arguably, the case with Noah Davis, whose work I only learned of when he died in 2015 at the age of 32. His moody, intimate, surrealistic paintings make you feel feelings you can’t quite identify. Davis was a genius at manipulating paint on the canvas, balancing delicate washes suffused with light against dark, moody figures that often appear to melt into each other or their surroundings. I see a bit of the South African painter Marlene Dumas in his work, but rather than portraits Davis’s paintings serve as eerie evocations of environment, wherein people and place, figure and ground blur and bleed. The worlds he creates are at once alluring and frightening, as in this depiction here of some sort of march toward death. I think Davis was rightly critical of how he was almost exclusively discussed in conversations about other African-American artists. “But it’s the most glamorous box I’ve ever been in, so whatever,” he once said. It’s a tragedy we won’t get any more paintings from him, but Davis left a significant body of work behind that there’s still a lot to say about, not to mention his many curatorial projects that will live on at The Underground Museum, an exhibition space and community hub he founded in LA.
Noah Davis, The Seven Prisoners of the Abyss, 2008