Noah Davis: Garden City @ Papillion | A Review

I feel like I need to be up-front and honest right away:  I always feel a little out of my element whenever I visit an art gallery and the works on view are paintings.  It's because I never took a painting class, and so I feel a little inadequate, like I can't 100% appreciate painting as an art form. Only 87% maybe, and only that because of the intense amount of art history and theory I was required to study. And I personally feel like there's a special place in hell for people whose only critique when they see works of art is "I like/dislike it," and that's it.  Why? At least tell me why!

I'll tell you why I enjoyed "Garden City", and it has a lot to do with the subject matter of Noah Davis' more prominently featured painting series Pueblo del Rio, and where Papillion is located.

   Arabesque , by Noah Davis, from the Pueblo del Rio series: oil on canvas, 4 x 6 ft, 2014

Arabesque, by Noah Davis, from the Pueblo del Rio series: oil on canvas, 4 x 6 ft, 2014

The solo exhibition Garden City is based on the Pueblo del Rio community in Vernon (a neighborhood is South Los Angeles.) Pueblo del Rio is a housing development designed by Richard Neutra and Paul Williams in 1941. The paintings represent the potential of art and performance in a low income community.
— Papillion Art

It's about more than just identifiably young black ballerinas painted by Noah Davis as giving bodily grace to a familiar Angeleno landscape.  It's about: What does he even mean?  With a color palette that's so rich and yet so muted? Using a painting technique reminiscent of the "flat design" trend that's currently pervasive throughout all forms of graphic design? That's what I like. As I walked into the room playing host to this series, I didn't feel assaulted by color and size for their own sake, like so many artists seem to be doing these days when they have their solo shows.  I walked into the room, and I almost immediately felt like I was taking part in a slightly uneasy yet mostly pleasant conversation.

I encourage any and all who are reading this right now to visit the exhibition and notice *how* that the Rio series is visually unified.  For the most part, it's black bodies situated in lower working-class residential/public exteriors either wearing or engaged in visible hallmarks of Western cultural legitimacy:  the ballet, the orchestra, the Church in the painting "Stain glass pants".  The most interesting painting to me personally was "Public Art".  Here we have four people of color beholding a seemingly inoffensive abstract sculpture.  Their body languange suggests mild ambivalence toward this work of art.  Has it invaded a space that they consider "theirs", a physical marker of paternalistic good intention?  Did these people ask for it?  Will they use it?

Taken all together, along with Davis' past work and the quote from Papillion above - that "[t]he paintings represent the potential of art and performance in a low income community"  -  the Pueblo del Rio series makes me think of how low-income people of color face obstacles to engaging with "high" culture, and so we often cannot visualize ourselves as being a part of it.  With these paintings, we are being given a gift of a slightly surrealistic vision of ourselves actively participating in a world that we can sometimes feel unwelcome in.  With these paintings at this gallery that's run by a black woman and located in a section of Los Angeles that is and has been black for decades, a sizable chunk of the black Angeleno demographic is being served.  I in no way believe, however, that Davis believes that institutional (white) acceptance is the key to true cultural legitimacy, which is just sooooooo important.  It isn't.  In case I wasn't being clear.  But why not be accepted?  Why shouldn't I or anyone matching my background (black, working class/working poor, urban, educated, told to become a lawyer) engage in the "traditional" arts?  Why shouldn't we feel like we belong?  We belong everywhere.

Also on view during "Garden City" are a series of framed drawings and collages by Noah Davis.  There are twenty of them, made over a range of time spanning years.  Coupled with the Rio series, I feel that anyone unfamiliar with his work can get good snapshot of who Davis is as an artist, and what subject matter is important to him.

The exhibition as a whole was very refreshing, in my humble opinion.  Not too crowded, no filler, and the space is quite beautiful.  It was my first time visiting Papillion since its relocation in February to Leimert Park from downtown.  What was also refreshing is that I'm now a Noah Davis fan.  I opened this article with a disclosure of my latent uneasiness with painting as an art form - because I spend so much time geeking out on photography, performance, and conceptual art, I'm naturally inclined to fan-girling out on artists who make work in those forms.  So it's rare that I even seek out the work of artists who paint, let alone become interested in their body of work.  I have to give credit where it's due - my friend, artist Shelli Tollman who suggested we swing by and check it out.  I'm really digging Davis' artwork.  Like, hard.  You should try it.

"Garden City" is on view until July 6th @ Papillion Art

Leimert Park at 4336 Degnan Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90008; Wednesday - Sunday, 12 - 6 or by appointment.