There was Jerry Springer: The Opera, starring Harvey Keitel at Carnegie Hall. There was the Bill O'Reilly loofah oratorio by local composer Igor Keller. A certain type of television is so low it's high again, if that's possible—it's Greek in its sweep—or maybe the hotness of its mess melts and scrambles the whole hierarchy.
That's certainly true of the Maury Povich and Jerry Springer shows. Noah Davis's second solo exhibition at James Harris Gallery (the first was in 2010) features six new paintings (five large, one small) based on stills from the TV shows. In one, Springer half hunches over a hair weave he holds between two fingers like a piece of roadkill—a sad, abject thing worn by the kind of sad, abject characters Springer parades on his stage. It's a painful moment that seems rife with the systematic cruelty, racism, and poverty that powers shock-talk shows even as they supposedly provide cathartic relief and apply tribunal-style judgment to outrageously bad situations: They're an underclass zoo.
Davis borrowed the title for the exhibition, Savage Wilds, from a 1988 play by Ishmael Reed about the nature of American racism. But he seems to view these "wilds" also as a metaphor for the art world—which, like the fading Jerry Springer and Maury Povich shows, is experiencing a kind of post-fat-Elvis period after the rhinestoney/jumpsuity mid-2000s hype and fairs. Davis embeds references to canonical paintings within his paintings, adding a Mondrian grid in the background of an ineffable scene in which Springer has grabbed a guest by the shoulders. This scene is also partly obscured by the angle of the camera, which seems to be located behind a rafter backstage that blocks much of the view of the action.
In You Are..., the most visually gripping and compositionally complex of the paintings, there are seven figures: Two enormous women with arms outstretched, rushing a man who is sitting with his head in his hands, an impassive woman (his suffering wife?) sitting stiffly on his other side, a guard, a character beamed in on a monitor, and someone (the host?) we see only as a pair of crossed legs. The backdrop of the studio is an unmistakable series of echoes of color-field paintings.
Who are the Maurys and Jerrys of the art world? Are the artists the guests? Who is the roadkill?