After Mirrored Fame, the Artist Karon Davis Steps Into Her Personal Mild
LOS ANGELES – Some people know Karon Davis primarily through associations – with her husband, acclaimed artist Noah Davis, who died in 2015 at the age of 32; with the Underground Museum, which the couple founded in 2012 and which shows the work of black artists; with her father, Broadway song-and-dance man Ben Vereen.
Recently, Davis has forged an independent professional identity as an artist. This process led to her first solo exhibition in New York at Jeffrey Deitch’s gallery until April 24th.
“I always wanted to do it alone,” Davis said in a recent interview at her Arlington Heights studio, “to prove to myself that I was good enough – I got it.” Nobody will give it to me. “
While she has shown her work in relatively few exhibitions and spent most of the years juggling the museum, her husband’s estate, and her 11-year-old son Moses, Davis has already made a big impression on the art institute.
“I see them between the art world and cinematic theatrical performance,” said Helen Molesworth, an independent curator who started the Underground Museum and organizes a show that includes Davis’ work at the Jack Shainman Gallery: The School in Kinderhook, NY
Davis’ steadfast exhibition “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished” in Deitch features a seated sculpture of Bobby Seale, who founded the Black Panther Party with Huey P. Newton and was handcuffed and gagged in a courtroom at the Chicago 8 trial in 1969. The defendants were charged with conspiracy to cross state lines to spark a riot. Seale was eventually tried separately.
The exhibit includes plaster casts of the 12 jurors, each wrapped in a red or blue display case, as well as a looming sculpture of District Judge Julius J. Hoffman, who dismissed and sentenced Seale’s repeated requests for permission to act as his own attorney 16 cases of contempt of court to four years in prison. (Aaron Sorkin’s recent Netflix drama, “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” focused on the case that ended up with seven white defendants.)
Deitch invited Davis to a pre-pandemic solo exhibition. Last November, moved by the protests against Black Lives Matter, the artist agreed on the idea of building a show around the Seale sculpture, which she had made two years ago. With a burst of creative energy, she made the remaining pieces in just three months.
“A lot of my emotions went into this show,” said Davis, who wore a patterned mask, biker boots, and a purple wig that allowed her not to worry about her hair on Zoom calls. “I want to immerse people in my experience.”
The Black Panthers adopted a visual logo of a stretching black panther, black berets, and a militaristic stance, and sometimes took to the streets with guns to face police brutality.
But Davis wanted to show another side of the group. Their exhibit includes a body cast by Seale standing next to 50 sculptured bags of groceries to represent the panthers’ free grocery program.
“They were really just trying to uplift their community and care for them,” she said, “but all that was shown was men with guns.”
Davis’ original Seale sculpture had been gesturing for some time. She grew up hearing her father, as a young actor, pronounce the Seale reading part of the trial record, which was released on record.
Davis searched for a copy for years, eventually found it in an antique shop in Leimert Park, Los Angeles, and listened to it enthusiastically.
“It just felt like this was a story that didn’t end there,” she said.
In making the sculpture, Davis left the covering of Seales’ mouth and hands until the last minute. “I had to take two shots of tequila and I was crying,” she recalled. “I thought of all the black men and women who were gagged and silenced.”
Davis drew on her theatrical and film backgrounds and envisioned the exhibition as a director as a stage set. She designed the bench and a pile of sandbags and cast parts of her own face and those of others in the roles.
“It’s like a frozen piece,” said Deitch, the longtime art dealer and former director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. “You come in and you are in the performance.”
He added, “It’s the best exhibition I’ve ever presented with an aspiring artist.”
According to Davis, there was only one group photo of the judges to work on – nine white women, one black woman, and two white men. She put them in individual display cases, she said, so that they would reflect on each other and think about themselves.
She described the sandbags as “a bit of a shrine” to the Black Panther headquarters in New Haven, which was always in danger. “I don’t think people know this story,” said Davis, “how long they had to go to protect themselves.”
Her casts consist of white stripes that reflect Davis’ longstanding fascination with ancient Egypt and mummification. The frayed flag in the installation is a feeling of disillusionment with the country. “We sold that dream,” said Davis, “and it fell apart and in tatters.”
Deitch, a longtime fan of the Underground Museum, had shown Davis’ work in 2018 on his New York show “People”. One of the pieces from this exhibition, “Nobody,” about the history of black vaudeville, is now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
She has also addressed issues such as climate change and flood displacement in “Muddy Water,” her 2018 solo show, and loss in her 2016 solo show, “Pain Management” – both at the Wilding Cran Gallery in Los Angeles. (One of her sculptures was featured on David Zwirner’s acclaimed Noah Davis Show last year.)
Her work is also in the collections of the Hammer Museum and the Brooklyn Museum. After seeing their installation “Game” at the Frieze LA art fair in 2019, the Hammer acquired the piece, which deals with mass shootings at the sculptures of two students and a teacher, all in antlers, near the steps of a school .
“The way she’s responding to gun violence in this country and the vulnerability of children just attending school has been really powerful,” said Connie Butler, the hammer’s chief curator. “It’s about the children who are being hunted.”
Davis continues to address the issue of safety in schools in her installation for the upcoming Shainman show, which features girls playing a double Dutch skipping rope and a schoolgirl hiding under a desk as an eight foot sculpture by Mother Superior hovering nearby.
Davis was born in Reno, Nevada and grew up in New York and New Jersey.
She remembers spending time in the theater wings and dusty rehearsal rooms of her father’s stage productions and being influenced by her mother, Nancy Vereen, a ballerina. Davis grew up taking dance classes and hoped to join the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater one day and perform the company’s elegiac homage to black women, “Cry,” which Donna Wood had touchingly portrayed.
After two years at Spelman College, Davis moved to the University of Southern California Film School in 2001.
While working as a personal assistant to a film director in Los Angeles, she met Noah, who encouraged her to explore her own art.
“He was my biggest fan,” said Davis. “He saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. I was a cabinet maker. “
Living life without her husband, who died of a rare cancer, has been made a little easier by making art. “It’s always been therapeutic for me,” said Davis. “I put all my emotions into the work.”
Davis only recently focused more on her practice, getting a studio near the Underground Museum in 2019, and moving from Ojai to Los Angeles last July after her mother’s death to learn what it means to be a working artist yourself .
“I was thrown in,” she said. “It was a big learning curve.”
She said she was inspired by the black women artists who were successful around her – Lorna Simpson, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Simone Leigh, and February James.
“This is not a moment,” said Davis. “We will stay here. This is not a trend. “
Even so, she can’t help but regret that Noah did not live to share in her success and rejoice at the distance she has come.
“He wanted this for me so badly,” she said. “I wish he was here to see it.”