Seattle

Young Blood: Noah Davis, Kahlil Joseph, the Underground Museum at Frye Art Museum

Currently on view at Frye Art Museum, Young Blood is a large-scale exhibition of two prominent contemporary artists and brothers, painter Noah Davis and filmmaker Kahlil Joseph. The most elaborate display of their individual works to date, Young Blood includes painting, film, sculpture, and installation, weaving varied mediums together with precision and fluidity. Through the tone and cadence of their depicted world—one of beauty, mystery, and raw honesty—Young Blood is as much a celebration as it is a homecoming.

Noah Davis. Painting for My Dad, 2011; oil on canvas; 76 x 91 in. Rubell Family Collection, Miami. ©The Estate of Noah Davis. Photo: Rubell Family Collection.

Noah Davis. Painting for My Dad, 2011; oil on canvas; 76 x 91 in. Rubell Family Collection, Miami. © The Estate of Noah Davis. Photo: Rubell Family Collection.

The title of the show comes from a term of endearment Joseph gave Davis and describes their common starting point as artists. Raised in Seattle, the brothers spent the majority of their careers in Los Angeles. Sadly, Davis died of a rare cancer in 2015 at the age of 32. Joseph, who still works in LA, continues to gain elevation, with his most recent work as co-director on Beyoncé’s hip-hop magnum opus Lemonade.

Opening the show is Davis’ Painting for My Dad (2011), featuring a figure, his father, approaching a starry black sky. Holding a lantern, the silhouette is relaxed as it stands beneath a rocky entrance. The night sky before him sparkles, expansive and looming. This dichotomy, of aesthetic simplicity paired with layered states of narrative, not unlike a film still, is a veil of omniscience that speaks through Davis’ work. It is what beckons the viewer to continue looking, to see beyond the canvas. The strokes of paint are just the entry point to a story that extends much further.

Noah Davis. Isis, 2009; oil and acrylic on linen; 48 x 48 in. Collection of Andrew Stearn. © The Estate of Noah Davis. Photo: Mark Woods.

Davis, who had his own studio by the age of 17, seemed to always exist beyond his years. His figurative paintings of oil and acrylic present low-contrast scenes of Black individuals, often of family and friends in domestic environments. The large-scale paintings are complemented by light sweeps of pastel coloring that harmonize his sparse but finely attuned attention to detail. When asked about his eloquent exploration of “instances where Black aesthetics and modernist aesthetics collide,” Davis noted, “race plays a role in as far as my figures are Black… If I’m making any statement, it’s to just show Black people in normal scenarios, where drugs and guns are nothing to do with it.”

A selection of Davis’ imitations of famous works by Jeff Koons and Marcel Duchamp—first exhibited at the Underground Museum—are included in Young Blood. Sensitive to the realities and parallels that exist within intersectionality and the arts, Davis founded the Underground Museum with his wife and fellow artist Karon Davis in the working-class neighborhood of Arlington Heights in 2012. Despite the geographical proximity to LA’s thriving arts scene, the continual lack of social representation remains a barrier for many people, specifically for the majority Black and Latino population living in the area. The Davises built the nonprofit to create and nurture a space of inclusivity. Eventually securing a partnership with the Museum of Contemporary Art, they succeeded in introducing an immense breadth of national and international art, and cultivated a thriving community.

Kahlil Joseph. Wildcat (Aunt Janet), 2016 (still); three-channel film work with audio. Courtesy of The Underground Museum.

Kahlil Joseph. Wildcat (Aunt Janet), 2016 (still); three-channel film work with audio. Courtesy of the Underground Museum.

Meanwhile, Joseph’s work, which sits elusively beyond the genres of cinema and music video, features gritty, stunning visuals paired and made in connection with music by lyrical heavy-hitters such as Shabazz Palaces, Flying Lotus, Kendrick Lamar, and now, Beyoncé. For Young Blood, Joseph created multi-channel installations of previously unseen films and outtakes.

Joseph’s attention to framing adds unique dimension to his filmic content. One of the most notable pieces in the show is the black-and-white film Wildcat (Aunt Janet) (2016). Composed of transparent triangulated screens, three synchronized films form a multidimensional narrative, the video capturing stunning landscapes at dusk, and Black cowboys at a rodeo in Grayson, Oklahoma. Beneath the installation is a triangle of dirt on the floor directly below the screens. Brought in from the Oklahoma rodeo, the mound of earth grounds the film in its origins, even while on display in the Northwest.

Noah Davis and Kahlil Joseph. The Sacred Garden, 2016; installation view. Design and production: Commonwealth Projects. Photo: Mark Woods.

Noah Davis and Kahlil Joseph. The Sacred Garden, 2016; installation view. Design and production: Commonwealth Projects. Photo: Mark Woods.

The Sacred Garden (2016) structurally segues the two artists’ bodies of work. The 33-foot-long artificial garden is filled with lush foliage—flowers and bushes in varying shades of purple. As a centerpiece within a purple-walled room, the garden serves both as a tribute to Davis and as an echo to the actual garden behind the Underground Museum. Conceptualized by Davis and constructed by Joseph, it is a contemplative space for both memorial and hope. The room is flanked at the entrance by one of Davis’ earliest exhibited paintings, 2004 (1) (2008), and at the other end, by one of his last, Untitled (2015). Through this amaranthine swansong, this final collaboration is metaphor to heritage, evolution, and spirit, which coalesce within the sanctuary, uniting their unique artistic visions.

Davis and Joseph have contributed immensely to modern art, both as artists and as Black artists. Their work is invaluable not just because of their gifted creative voices, but also due to the added complexity and dynamism their work brings to the whitewashed culture of the art world. As contemporary art and culture continue to evolve, Davis and Joseph illuminate lesser-known vantage points through works where, like Davis’ brushstrokes, the aesthetics are just the beginning of a story that extends much deeper than art.

Young Blood: Noah Davis, Kahlil Joseph, the Underground Museum is on view at Frye Art Museum in Seattle through June 19, 2016.

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