Noah Davis

Noah Davis, Mary Jane, 2008, oil and acrylic on canvas, 60 × 52 1/4".
Noah Davis, Mary Jane, 2008, oil and acrylic on canvas, 60 × 52 1/4". Courtesy and © The Estate of Noah Davis, Private collection of Michael Sherman and Carrie Tivador

PROTEAN PAINTER NOAH DAVIS had emerged as a catalytic force when he died of cancer at age thirty-two. His swift evolution promised an exciting future, as did the Underground Museum, an alternative exhibition space in a working-class Los Angeles neighborhood, that Davis founded with his wife, Karon. From 2007 until 2015, the year of his death, Davis portrayed African American daily life with an eye for the improbable: a girl sits astride a giant snail; a young man holds a slippery-looking creature in Man with Alien and Shotgun. In this new monograph, fellow painter Henry Taylor muses about his friend: “That motherfucker painted hard.” The intensity Taylor describes isn’t immediately apparent in Davis’s canvases; initially we see an empathetic observation of domesticity rendered with an alluring delicacy. But a closer look reveals a painterly complexity that often serves disquieting and even ominous narratives. There is much to be discovered in the backgrounds and corners of Davis’s seemingly ordinary scenes. In The Casting Call, several women dancers assume a version of ballet’s fifth position—their arms forming an arch above their heads—except for one, who stands with her head bowed in sadness, her arms hanging. Does she anticipate rejection, or does she regret this ritual of self-display? With its folksy title and straightforward presentation of a young girl wearing a kerchief and striped pinafore, Mary Jane masks, for a moment, its eeriness. The otherworldly quality of the lushly agitated background both accentuates the girl’s realistic depiction and suggests the presence of chaos, even threat. While the geometrically patterned clothes vie for attention with the commotion behind, the girl’s impassive face occupies a transfixing center point on the canvas. Once felt, the tension beneath the painting’s evident charms grows seductively potent and soon dominates the viewer’s experience. Davis did indeed paint hard.