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After an Untimely Death, an Artist's Legacy Lives On in the Museum He Founded

"Ultimately, I want to change the way people view art, the way people buy art, the way they make art."
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Noah Davis, Isis, 2009, oil and acrylic on linen, 48 x 48 in. Collection of Andrew Stearn.

The Underground Museum Rising: The Life and Legacy of Noah Davis

"Ultimately, I want to change the way people view art, the way people buy art, the way they make art. I've always tried to balance the tight rope of making my art accessible to those who are aware of the craft, and those who aren't convinced of art or more specifically my artistic objective. I believe that concealing too much in theory is problematic and that art can function in everyday life. I strive for an artistic legacy that not only transcends blackness but confluences and impacts all cultures." - Noah Davis

Noah Davis, Painting for My Dad, 2011, oil on canvas, 76 x 91 in. Rubell Family Collection, Miami.

From the outside, The Underground Museum is not much to look at. Located on a somewhat desolate stretch of Washington Boulevard in Los Angeles's Arlington Heights neighborhood, the ordinary black metal gates over the doors and windows seem to deny that anything special could be behind them. Yet beyond those gates lies an art space that is very special indeed. A cozy bookstore leads to an expansive, sky-lit gallery, and a bar area, kitchen, and office. South-facing doors admit a cool breeze from the garden, which overflows with flowers--lavender, violet, lilac, jacaranda, all shades of purple, the color of royalty. The Underground Museum, founded in 2012 by artists Noah Davis and his wife, artist and filmmaker Karon Davis, exists as a space of grace, generosity, and affirmation, a place where everyone is welcomed with dignity and purpose in a largely underserved area of central LA. The impact and influence of The Underground Museum and Noah Davis reach beyond the physical space and its programming in Los Angeles, however, especially at this moment, as both the Frye Art Museum in Seattle and the Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago have mounted exhibitions of Davis's work.

Noah Davis and Kahlil Joseph, The Sacred Garden, 2016, Artificial plants, marble, sterilized soil, 11 x 33 ft. Design and production: Commonwealth Projects. Installation view, Frye Art Museum, 2016.

At Seattle's Frye Art Museum, there is a replica of the purple garden that grows behind The Underground Museum, part of the recently opened exhibition "Young Blood: Noah Davis, Kahlil Joseph, The Underground Museum." The garden, which contains "sacred objects" and small sculptures hidden amongst the silk flowers, serves as a memorial and meditation space (perhaps now made even more poignant, if it's possible, by the recent passing of "the Purple One," music legend Prince). An undeniable undercurrent of mourning and commemoration flows through this exhibition, coming as it does within months of the death of Davis, who passed away in August 2015, at the age of 32. The Underground Museum itself came into existence as a tribute to Keven Davis, Noah and Kahlil Joseph's father, who died in 2011, and inspired his children to reach out and make an impact in the wider community. The exhibition at the Frye explores The Underground Museum as a cultural hub and creative proposition, with paintings by Davis and film installations by Joseph that vividly evoke the beauty and power of life and death, culture and communion.

Kahlil Joseph, Streetlight, 2014, motion picture still, chromogenic color print, 32 1/4 x 40 in. Collection of the artist.

Like other artists before him, Noah Davis believed that art should not be sequestered away for the enjoyment of the elite only. With The Underground Museum, located in a low-income area primarily comprised of Latino and African-American residents, he wanted to invest in a community that otherwise had little access to art and arts education. Carrying on the torch in his absence, Davis's wife, brother, and a small staff continue to open The Underground Museum up to members of the community, work one on one with teen artists, and plan the UM Academy, an education program modeled after Black Mountain College. "We look to artists like Rick Lowe, Mark Bradford, and Theaster Gates as leading the way," Karon Davis told MutualArt, describing the affinities between The Underground Museum and similar artist-established programs: Houston's Project Row Houses, Art + Practice in Los Angeles, and the Rebuild Foundation in Chicago. "Theaster in particular has been a real mentor and inspiration to Noah," she added; one of his maxims--"everyone is entitled to beauty"--especially guided them in their mission of bringing art to the community.

Noah Davis, 1975 Paintings, Installation view, Stony Island Arts Bank, 2016. Courtesy of Rebuild Foundation. Photo: Cecil McDonald.

The affinities and parallels between Gates' Rebuild Foundation and Davis's Underground Museum run deep and strong. As Rebuild Foundation CEO Ken Stewart related to MutualArt, both of the organizations function "almost as an extension of [the artists'] practices, with the purpose of building spaces where world class art can be brought to neighborhoods that don't have easy access to it, and then to actually do the work of bringing that world class art to the neighborhood." Gates remarks, "The spaces are born out of the necessity of artist intent--they don't want to live forever, but they have to be born; they are not concerned with sustainability, they are concerned with possibility."

Noah Davis, 10, 2013, oil on canvas, 49.5 x 72.5 in. Courtesy of Rebuild Foundation. Photo: Cecil McDonald.

In an exhibition entitled "1975 Paintings," the Rebuild Foundation is currently hosting Noah Davis's work at their Stony Island Arts Bank location, a series of paintings he completed in 2013, inspired by photographs his mother had taken as a student in Chicago in 1975. "We were excited about [the work's] connection to the South Side of Chicago, the archival dimension of its origin and how it relates to our ambition for our archives at the Arts Bank, and the strong parallels between Rebuild Foundation and the Underground Museum," says Stewart. The deep connections between personal history and geography extend as well to the Frye Art Museum: Davis and Joseph grew up in Seattle, and, as teenagers, would spend hours at the Museum, which was located just across the street from their high school. Now, one of Davis's own paintings hangs at the Frye among the paintings in the permanent collection that he loved so much.

Noah Davis, Untitled (Boy with Glasses), 2010, oil on linen, 10 x 10 in. Installation view, Frye Art Museum, 2016. Collection of Aryn Drakelee-Williams and Jesse Williams.

In his brief but prolific career, Davis produced hundreds of paintings, but he also left behind over a dozen curatorial proposals for exhibitions at The Underground Museum. Through a collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles forged in the last year of Davis's life, The Underground Museum will present over the next few years a series of exhibitions curated by Davis, drawn from its collection and that of MOCA. The first of these, "Non-Fiction," which draws together works that make reference to the perpetration of race-driven violence in the United States, opens on Sunday May 1, and features works by Kerry James Marshall, Deana Lawson, David Hammons, and others. Davis left behind no explanatory texts for the curatorial choices he made, leaving open pathways of interpretation, and allowing for the arrangements of works to speak directly to the viewer. The seed of the exhibition, and the most striking of these arrangements, is found in a 1949 photograph, by Marion Palfi, of the wife of a lynching victim, hung on a decorative wallpaper print depicting a hanging man and a sleeping man, by Robert Gober--a jarring and powerful juxtaposition of violence as both a latent and a very specific reality.

Installation view of Non-fiction, March 2016-March 2017 at The Underground Museum, courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Photo: Justin Lublin.

The Underground Museum can be seen as a continuation of Davis's artistic process and expression. Theaster Gates remarks on the similarities between their two organizations in that the intentionality behind how they function are "not mission based as much as they were artist inspired," and as such, these spaces function differently than traditional non-profit organizations. "The difference is that the work starts for me as an idea birthed in the same way a work of art is. I feel this strongly in the structure Noah set up as well," he says. Gates believes Davis's curatorial practice derives from the same place as his artistic practice: "As you look at the exhibitions he wanted to produced and laid out in his sketch books, the Artist was interested in using the structure of curation to say things that he wanted to say in the material world. He doesn't want to be a curator, but rather, as an artist make moves that need the seat of the curator in order to manifest an idea." Over the next few years, as The Underground Museum mounts the series of exhibitions curated by Davis, the community will be lucky, blessed even, to be able to continue to experience his art, through his consideration of other artists' work, as well as through his paintings. As such, the spirit exceeds its vessel, and flows outward. "Through Noah's art, he continues to live," Karon says, "he continues to inspire people."

David Hammons, In The Hood, (Gray), 2016, found sweatshirt, fishing wire, metal. Installation view of Non-fiction, March 2016-March 2017 at The Underground Museum, courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Photo: Justin Lublin.

Noah Davis, "1975 Paintings" runs from February 20 - May 21, 2016, at the Rebuild Foundation's Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago.

"Young Blood: Noah Davis, Kahlil Joseph, The Underground Museum" at the Frye Art Museum, Seattle, is on view from April 16-June 19, 2016.

"Non-Fiction," curated by Noah Davis, at The Underground Museum in Los Angeles, opens May 1, 2016.

--Natalie Hegert

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