Los Angeles

Noah Davis: Imitation of Wealth at MOCA Storefront

For the next three years, the estimable Underground Museum, co-founded by husband and wife Noah and Karon Davis, will bring artworks from Museum of Contemporary Art’s (MOCA) permanent collection to its unassuming storefront in the largely black and Latino working-class neighborhoods of West Adams and Crenshaw. Reciprocally, MOCA presents Noah Davis’ Imitation of Wealth, which was first exhibited at the Underground Museum, in its new storefront exhibition space located on Grand Avenue in Downtown Los Angeles.

Noah Davis. Imitation of Wealth, 2015; installation view, MOCA: storefront. Courtesy of the Artist and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Photo: Cameron Crone and Carter Seddon.

Noah Davis. Imitation of Wealth, 2015; installation view, MOCA Storefront. Courtesy of the Artist and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Photo: Cameron Crone and Carter Seddon.

In Imitation of Wealth, Davis stations a vintage Hoover vacuum cleaner (bought via Craigslist) atop a vitrine filled with fluorescent lights, making an identical Jeff Koons. He replicates a Robert Smithson in the corner of the room, with three square mirrors embracing a pile of sand. The iconic works of Marcel Duchamp, On Kawara, and Dan Flavin are also re-created. In an interview with Art in America, Davis explains his initial interest in showing the works at the Underground Museum, which formerly housed a pupuseria: “I like the idea of bringing a high-end gallery into a place that has no cultural outlets within walking distance.” Now relocated to MOCA’s storefront, Davis’ copies of these iconic works are glassed in by floor-to-ceiling windows. The room is inaccessible; its front door is locked. Visitors can only view Davis’ works from the exterior, by squinting through the reflections in the windows, and are disconnected—kept out—from the works inside.

According to MOCA, Imitation of Wealth masquerades famous works of art in an attempt “to break down the traditional class and ethnic barriers to high culture.” MOCA, however, makes the assumption that the original pieces by Koons, Flavin, and Smithson are worthy of emulation—Davis’ emulation—and appreciation by all Los Angeles communities, even those without a stake in the art world.

Douglas Sirk. Imitation of Life (film still), 1959; 35mm color. Courtesy of Universal Studios, 1959.

Douglas Sirk. Imitation of Life (film still), 1959; 35mm color. Courtesy of Universal Studios, 1959.

The exhibition’s title alludes to Douglas Sirk’s 1959 film Imitation of Life. Among the cast of characters in the movie is Sarah Jane, a light-skinned black girl who rejects her mother and passes as white to escape the fate of American second-class citizenship. She starts dating a white boy and eventually hopes to run away with him. When they meet up, the boy furiously accuses Sarah Jane of being black and deceiving him. Through the reflection of a store window, we see him beating her.

MOCA’s attempt to bring “high culture” to those without it might be its noble mission. Meanwhile, Imitation of Wealth passes for “high culture” to demonstrate the absurdity in bestowing institutional visibility upon certain artists while excluding others. In an interview with The Stranger, Davis reveals the unavoidable conundrum of racial inclusion within art institutions, stating, “For a while, I thought I was being put in a box. But it’s the most glamorous box I’ve ever been in, so whatever.”

Noah Davis. Imitation of Wealth, 2015; installation view, MOCA: storefront. Courtesy of the Artist and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Photo: Calder Yates.

Noah Davis. Imitation of Wealth, 2015; installation view, MOCA Storefront. Courtesy of the Artist and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Photo: Calder Yates.

A passage from the book The Culture Game, written by artist and intellectual Olu Oguibe, seems fitting to Davis’ position:

Those who come to it from backgrounds outside Europe (the “ethnics,” “postcolonials,” “minorities,” all those who have ancestry, connections, or affiliations “elsewhere”)…. Though they may know the rules—and most who have the patience to understudy it do, bitterly so—the game is nevertheless inherently stacked against them…. The rules of engagement are a straitjacket of history and expectations, which often leaves them with rather stark options: to take a fall with as much grace as the doomed can muster, or to self-exoticize and humor the establishment for a chance at that brief nod, or else fail the hard way.

Imitation of Wealth, along with the Underground Museum, began with the underpinnings of a protest. For why honor the singularity of a Jeff Koons when it is so easily replicated? By re-creating iconic works and showcasing them in the West Adams neighborhood of Los Angeles, Davis erodes the mythological auras of the original works, thereby bursting the bubble of “high culture.” In creating Imitation of Wealth, Davis was playing the game, or as Oguibe would describe it, “humoring the establishment.” Sure enough, two years after its debut at the Underground Museum, we find these works—not Davis’ other work (mercurial and captivating paintings in their own right), not the works of Karon Davis, and not the works of any of the various interesting artists exhibited at the Underground Museum—but the replicas of Koons, Flavin, and Smithson, exhibited through the storefront windows at MOCA, mockingly obscured and reflected by the fun-house mirrors of “high culture.”

Whether Imitation of Wealth was created in admiration or in sly critique of Jeff Koons, Dan Flavin, On Kawara, and their celebrity, we may never know.

Noah Davis died at the age of 32 from a rare cancer on Saturday, August 29, 2015.

Noah Davis: Imitation of Wealth is on view at MOCA Storefront through February 29, 2016.

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