There's a three-sided cinema suspended like a hovering cloud in an unlit gallery at the Frye Art Museum. Slow-motion, black-and-white footage plays on the triangle of screens, continuously but unsynchronized, unleashing a rolling tide of triple superimposition.
You see horses, riders, bleachers, a lightning-cracked sky. Floating by, you hear a score by experimental hiphop giant Flying Lotus: the sounds of cheering, a downpour, electronic buzzes, a bass string insistently plucked. The creator and director of the film is Kahlil Joseph, and he shot the footage at the rodeo in the town of Grayson, Oklahoma, one of many towns founded by African Americans meaning to find self-governance in this country between 1865 and 1915. The triangle of dirt on the floor of the gallery is from the rodeo, with bits of real litter left in it. All-Black towns are not, in this work, only things of the past. Or the future. They are eternal, and the eternal is here. The goose bumps tell you that.
A field of superimpositions as vast as the sky that rebirths new histories: That's one way to think about the Frye's exhibition of films and paintings by Kahlil Joseph and his brother Noah Davis, Young Blood: Noah Davis, Kahlil Joseph, The Underground Museum. Narratives superimpose themselves on other narratives. The show expands the more you look, and it makes you look. If you focus too long on one figure or scar of lightning, you feel the pang of missing another one, and move to another angle to see more. These works are epic but specific, personal and familial but universal.
My god, I haven't seen a show this good—this vital, appealing, meaningful—in Seattle in a long time.
Young Blood is a display of strong connections between two brilliant artists accomplished in very different worlds and mediums, filmmaking and painting. It's also a tale of famous, sought-after artists who've held their own in the big time, consistently making original, relevant, and powerful art.
Young Blood is also a story of one Seattle family embedded in a rich heritage of Black art in Seattle and beyond. Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes, member of another artist family, curated Young Blood with great care, at the invitation of departing Frye director Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker. Alley-Barnes's installation has threads running through it. The way he chose and arranged the art, you'll see colors recur as well as thematic connections, and the brothers' subtle use of the ancient shape of a pyramid.
Alley-Barnes met Davis in preschool, when they both were the kid in class who could draw. Later, all three of the boys went to high school at O'Dea, where they played hooky at the museum next door: the Frye.
Davis will not get to see his works on the Frye's walls. In August, at age 32, he died of a rare cancer; Young Blood was already in the works. He left more than 200 paintings, and Young Blood includes pieces from all stages of his career, a career that feels from looking at these paintings not just over but complete. Despite the title Young Blood, these paintings, and Joseph's films, are by artists working at their full powers.
Most of Davis's paintings feature figures in lonely, ambiguous situations. Painting for My Dad is the exhibition's immersive welcome. It pictures a slender male figure seen from behind, holding a lantern at the edge of an earthen cave and looking out from the cave at the starry sky beyond, which is streaky, worked over repeatedly, hard-won. Davis made this one shortly before his father, Keven, died of cancer in 2011, at age 53.
Keven and Faith Childs-Davis raised Noah and Kahlil in Mount Baker. (Born Kahlil Joseph Davis, he dropped his last name.) Keven was a prominent entertainment lawyer, representing, among others, Serena and Venus Williams. His sons sit with royalty in their fields, too. Joseph won the Sundance Award, has worked with Terrence Malick, fashion house Kenzo, Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Ishmael Butler of Digable Planets and Shabazz Palaces. Vice magazine asked last year, "Is Kahlil Joseph Hip Hop's Most Important Video Director?" He's far more than a hiphop video director. Watch the film Until the Quiet Comes (2012) at the Frye. Watch it over and over. It undoes death. Rewinds it into a dance that culminates in its victim sliding backward into a lowrider. There is nothing like it.
When Davis was barely 25, he was in an exhibition canonizing 30 years of African American art called 30 Americans that put him in the company of David Hammons, Kara Walker, Kerry James Marshall, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. (It travels to Tacoma Art Museum this fall.) Davis had his first solo show in Seattle at James Harris Gallery in 2010, followed by another equally strong one in 2012.
Beyond his paintings themselves, Davis leaves an almost equally important legacy: the ongoing Underground Museum in Arlington Heights in Los Angeles, where admission is free and the neighborhood, mostly Black and Latino, doesn't have any other museums.
I'll let you discover, in the Frye galleries, the story of how Davis got the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, which first scoffed at his requests, to allow the Underground Museum access to MOCA's art for loan. (Look also for the little Davis secret that's implanted in the Frye's permanent collection room.)
The same LA gallery that handles Kehinde Wiley, now headlining Seattle Art Museum, represents Davis. Their paintings share nothing else; Davis's are warmly handmade, complex, transcendent mysteries.
After Painting for My Dad comes his incredible Isis (2009), another myth-poem based on a family member, Karon, a commanding presence who spreads her yellow skirt upward so it's a pair of majestic wings. Look at her sacredness, at the epic tree, then the discarded heating vents, the half-lit window. This painting is its own world.
We see Davis at work in a brand-new documentary by Joseph, Karon, and Nicole Otero, presented over four screens. It's almost literally breathtaking to watch Davis, because he will walk up to one of his paintings in the studio, and it will look finished and fantastic, but he will begin indiscriminately painting over it to start a new one. It's just the way he worked. So many great paintings exist only in the film.
Four surviving paintings in one Frye gallery faintly show earlier layers, as if the surface imagery weren't layered enough. Why is that one woman not doing the same moves as the others in Casting Call (2008)? What is the secret pact between the three figures in the Easter palette of The Internal Contract (2009)? Is that a Black version of Grace Kelly in The Narrator (2010)? What's happening with the girl who sits on her bed wearing her scary mask and looking straight at you? She's titled 1984 (2009), which superimposes its own literary references, but the piece is based on an innocuous family snapshot of Karon, as a kid, on Halloween in 1984.
The most unusual gallery in Young Blood contains a long garden of artificial plants with one painting on either end, from the start and finish of Davis's career. It's a memorial chamber and tribute to the ongoing Underground Museum in LA. Sit a while; there are benches.
The earliest work is an unexpected abstraction from 2008, inspired by the election. The most recent was made in 2015, when Davis knew he was not just sick but dying. It is a filmy, dreamlike vision, a link to his brother's ephemeral chosen medium, and pictures, larger than life, a man lying down in a boat, in the sun. The prow points past the upper edge of the frame, heading somewhere even the man doesn't know.
Playing on a loop in a black box theater with Joseph's aforementioned Until the Quiet Comes, there's a new, achingly beautiful film called Alice™ (you don't have to think about it) (2016). Joseph shot it during a recording session of Alice Smith, the blues-rock singer with a voice as distinctive as the greats.
Moving the camera between her face and hands in the fuzzy golden light of the studio, Joseph creates a portrait of the singer as she's trying to hold it together. This was shortly after her grandmother died. Her sound and images are out of sync. Joseph's brother was close to death at the time he made this. Alice feels sacred. Smith may be on the screen, but this is Joseph's self-portrait in grief.