Karon Davis in LA Weekly. Interview by Matt Stromberg.

Karon Davis Mourned the Loss of Her Husband, Artist Noah Davis, By Turning Grief Into Art

Karon Davis says she would have made the piece  Cry, Baby  even larger to reflect the depths of grief.

Karon Davis says she would have made the piece Cry, Baby even larger to reflect the depths of grief.


“If I could have made it 50 stories high to explain how painful this has been, I would have done that,” artist Karon Davis says. “It's like no tissue box is big enough to dry my tears, our tears.”

She’s referring to Cry, Baby, a nine-foot-tall plaster-and-wood sculpture of a Kleenex box that is included in her solo show, "Pain Management," currently on view at Wilding Cran Gallery. Dealing with themes of grief, mourning and resilience, the exhibition is an elegiac response to the loss of Davis’ husband, the artist Noah Davis, who succumbed to a rare form of cancer last summer.

The Davises are also known for founding the Underground Museum, a non-profit arts space in the central-L.A. neighborhood of Arlington Heights, just north of the 10 freeway. Through various collaborations — including a multi-year partnership with MOCA  — the space became the nexus of activity for many in the African American creative community, providing a space to display works and even address recent racial turmoil by offering a forum for Black Lives Matter. Noah also shared the space with his brother, Kahlil Joseph, a filmmaker who created works for artists like Flying Lotus, and who was recently nominated for an Emmy for directing a part of Beyonce's visual-album,  "Lemonade."

Alongside the oversized tissue box, Davis has created an array of life-size sculptural figures that relate to the years spent dealing with her husband’s illness. Made by wrapping strips of plaster-dipped cloth around live models, they are uncannily life-like, despite their bone-white color. Three nurse figures in scrubs, each personifying a different drug, stand in for all the individuals who helped them over the years.

“The first piece I created was Nicotine Nurse, and actually Noah worked on that with me,” Davis says. “We had talked about this series of nurses, and I promised him I'd finish it.” 

The veteran nurse rests on bench, taking a break between shifts with a cup of coffee and a cigarette. A scarecrow nurse named for the chemo drug Ifosfamide stands watch over rows of tissues that sprout up from a plot of earth like crops of sadness. Near the gallery’s entrance an Angel nurse representing Morphine kneels. Her flowing wings are made from shredded medical bills, a physical manifestation of the financial burden so many sick Americans struggle with.

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MOCA & Noah Davis' Underground Museum collaborate.


By Carolina A. Miranda

Watching William Kentridge's video installation "7 Fragments for George Méliès" is like watching a bunch of ghosts play with the materials of art. In this suite of seven videos, ink flows backward. Torn scraps of paper levitate and reassemble themselves. Drawings come magically to life. 

Kentridge is a highly regarded South African artist who has had exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Louvre in Paris. "7 Fragments," a tribute to Méliès, the French special-effects pioneer, was made in 2003 and is in the permanent collection of various international museums, including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

The piece is on view in L.A., but it can't be found at any museum.

Instead, for the last three weeks, "7 Fragments" has been quietly screening inside a low-slung storefront on Washington Boulevard in Arlington Heights, down the block from a tattoo parlor and a liquor store. Showing alongside it are two companion videos by Kentridge that are also part of MOCA's permanent collection. 

The installation is part of an innovative new collaboration between the Underground Museum, the alternative art space founded by painter Noah Davis, and the Museum of Contemporary Art. For the next three years, the Underground will feature a series of exhibitions, curated by Davis, that will be drawn from MOCA's permanent collection — placing important works of art in a largely working-class black and Latino neighborhood at the heart of Los Angeles. 

"Noah said that it had been this huge dream of his to have the Underground Museum have museum-quality work," says MOCA chief curator Helen Molesworth. "I had been thinking about wanting to do things with artists, to have the museum do things that the artists couldn't do themselves, that they needed resources or expertise that we could bring to the situation."

Founded in part by artists, MOCA has long referred to itself as an "artist's museum." And Molesworth, who joined MOCA late last year, says that Davis articulated his idea — of showing museum quality work at the Underground Museum — right at a moment in which she was considering what being an "artist's museum" meant.

She floated the idea of a collaboration to MOCA Director Philippe Vergne, who immediately supported it. "Both Philippe and I feel very strongly that if you follow the artists, you will be in the right place," she says. "That's what it means to be an artist's museum."

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