In 1971, Hans Haacke became instantly famous—and, in certain quarters, infamous—when the Guggenheim Museum in New York canceled his solo show. The museum did not want to show his art because it documented the shady business dealings of members of the museum's board of trustees, threatening to violate the unspoken rule that the real-world activities of a museum's backers never trickle down into the galleries.
That's the kind of art Seattle native Noah Davis thought he was going to make when he arrived in the fall of 2001 at the Cooper Union School of Art, where Haacke would become his sculpture teacher. But the problem for Davis was twofold: Haacke's art hadn't really changed the world, and Davis was a painter at heart. Davis's first solo show, when he was 17, was watercolors inspired by the Italian expressionist/surrealist Francesco Clemente, hung in the hallway outside the former movie theater at Capitol Hill's Broadway Market mall. Pretty much nobody saw or cared about them, and he didn't paint again until he was 24. Now he's 27, and in the last three years he's made some 150 paintings, they've all been bought, and curators, collectors, and critics have awarded him a coveted spot in the canon of contemporary African-American artists by including him in the nationally traveling group show 30 Americans. He's made it.
"For a while, I thought I was being put in a box," Davis says about being shown alongside legends and up-and-comers including David Hammons, Barkley Hendricks, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Lorna Simpson, Glenn Ligon, Kara Walker, William Pope.L, Kalup Linzy, Nick Cave, and John Bankston. "But it's probably the most glamorous box I've ever been in, so whatever. I was fucking honored."
Davis's first show at James Harris Gallery in Seattle is nine new paintings (following, coincidentally, a solo there by Bankston). He lives in Los Angeles, and when he showed a series of paintings there in January based on Richard Brautigan's 1968 book In Watermelon Sugar, Sharon Mizota of the Los Angeles Times wrote:
At first, Noah Davis' exhibition at Roberts & Tilton looks like another rehash of Surrealism seen through the lens of gestural painting. Dream-like compositions and appropriated imagery are executed with a vague, casual hand. But spend some time with these lushly colored images and they begin to divulge intriguing, partial, but surprisingly emotional narratives that push the paintings beyond faux-naive Surrealism to touch upon harsher realities.
Harsh realities haunt the newer paintings, but the colors are earthier—not candy-pink but evergreen, brown, black, and slate blue. At the show's entrance, the large, brushy painting Zero—of a man seen in shades of gray, looking over his shoulder at a reflection of himself, the two torsos suspended in a placeless field of darker grays and blacks—sets a foreboding tone. You feel it again in the back room: Three faces seen in sketchy frontal views wear masks of paint, as if the artist decided to cover them over at the last moment. In a fourth painting, I Wonder as I Wander, based on a photograph of Langston Hughes in which his arm is slung around a fat Oceanic sculpture, Hughes has no face.
Four larger paintings occupy the middle room of the gallery. The most magnetic is a six-by-five-foot primitive/futuristic fantasia depicting a man in a jungle clearing, strapped to a flying machine with a propeller shaped like a whale's tail. He looks to be faceless at first, but on closer look, his features are shaped in black paint but invisible at a distance against more black paint. The other three paintings in the middle room feel more static. The best work here has spark because it seems to bring together references that nobody else would—a painting that makes you think simultaneously of American appropriationist Richard Prince and German expressionist Georg Baselitz?!—and on top of that, has plenty more mystery and strangeness to give, coming straight from this clearly brush-loving hand.
Davis didn't want to accept that he was a painter.
"I didn't paint at all in New York," he recalls. "I had this heavy conceptual background, I wasn't really making anything, and my heart wasn't in it. I dropped out of school."
He left school for a job in public-art administration in Los Angeles, then worked at the bookstore at the city's radical Museum of Contemporary Art—where he mostly focused on studying, both books and live artworks. He equally loved postmodern jester Martin Kippenberger and modern spiritualist Mark Rothko. Finally he decided: "It's okay to like Giacometti, it's okay to like Picasso, and it's okay to like Bruce Nauman."
The jobs didn't last.
"I was like Allen Ginsberg said of himself—'I was completely unemployable, which made me perfect as an artist,'" he says. "I left my job, and it was like sink or swim. I just started painting."
He rocketed. Roberts & Tilton gallery showed a couple of his paintings in a 2007 group show called Bliss, then followed that with a solo show in 2008—of uncharacteristically stark, graphic, abstract paintings featuring the shapes of the swing states in the 2004 presidential election. He made a sale to legendary collector Dean Valentine and quickly was in such demand that he had to turn down press requests because he needed to get back into the studio: He had no paintings left. The power of his work is enigmatic, stemming from some combination of being both knowing and earnest. Their popularity coincides with the resurgence of painting and figuration in recent years (see the Leipzig School, Marlene Dumas) and a return to pulling the long strands of primitivism the moderns tugged on (Davis shares a studio with artists Aaron Curry and Thomas Houseago, who show similar stylistic interests).
It has been almost a decade since Davis has been back in Seattle, and this is his first time showing in the city where, at 16, he came across a piece by Kara Walker at Greg Kucera Gallery in Pioneer Square. It was $3,000, and he could not convince his parents to buy it. "But I remember everything about it. It was the bird-shit one. It was purple." Even before that, he had taken classes with middle-aged ladies at the realist school that would eventually become Gage Academy of Art—back when it was located near Jack in the Box on University Way—and he remembers sneaking out of class at O'Dea High School to see the paintings across the street at the Frye Art Museum.
To aspiring Seattle artists, he does not hesitate to give advice.
"You do as much research as you possibly can," he says. "You look at every show. You have to know everything that is going on. You have to be in on the joke, whether there is a joke or not."