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Black Brilliance: 'Young Blood' at the Frye

The morning Prince died I went to The Purple Garden and wept. I’d been brought to this meticulous sprawl of stubby succulents, wiry shrubs and delicate wildflowers by the Frye’s new exhibition, called Young Blood: Noah Davis, Kahlil Joseph, The Underground Museum. A strange, fecund oasis pregnant with its own quiet gravity, it was the right place in which to reckon with the sudden loss of a master artist.

The Purple Garden was in fact designed to provide solace, a lens through which to perceive and understand a life lived in art. The original is alive and thriving in the backyard of The Underground Museum, a free art museum and community hub in the Arlington Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. This approximation—the plants are remarkably lifelike plastic; the name, according to the Frye, was recently changed to The Sacred Garden—was designed in part by Kahlil Joseph to commemorate his older brother Noah Davis, the artist who founded the Underground Museum and died from cancer last year at 32. 

The Garden is bookended by two of Davis’ paintings: On the west wall is a lavender square painted off-kilter onto a parchment-white canvas. Geometric and abstract, it’s called 2004 and was painted in 2008, in the first bloom of Davis’ explosive career. On the east wall is a painting that conforms to his mostly figurative work, a sun-bleached rowboat crammed into the frame, within it a white-clothed body prostrate and possibly unconscious. Dripping with opaque lavenders and pinks, Untitled seems sickly, unstable, ghostly—representative, perhaps, of Davis’ own diminished physical state at the time he painted it in 2015. The walls these works hang on are painted royal purple.

The entirety of Young Blood is oriented toward the reconciliation of complex equations. What do we choose to show the world and how? What do we choose to see? The show is a lesson in how lineage and tradition influence even the most groundbreaking work; a reminder that the leavings of the dead are treasures and signposts as alive as those left to interpret them; an examination of the complex relationships families and communities; a revelation of knowledge hidden in plain sight.

Joseph’s short films, sensual and spiritual and expertly framed, turn against Davis’ paintings, which are thick with paint and narrative intimation. The exhibit leaves questions unanswered, alive, eternal. It feels deeply personal, solemn and significant, like being included in a family meeting, because that is essentially what Young Blood is. 

The first piece you encounter is Davis’ Painting for My Dad, a symbolic portal into the world of Young Blood. This is likely Noah’s father, Keven Davis, at the mouth of a cave, back to the viewer, facing a sky-wide abyss. Amid an enormous canvas, his body is small, the lantern he holds smaller still. His stance between worlds is either brave or blind but certainly steady, a step out of darkness and into more darkness. Noah made the painting in 2011; Keven, a prominent Seattle attorney who worked with artists and athletes across the U.S., died in December of that year.

The second gallery features two flat-screen monitors encased in jewel-like black laminate showing Kahlil Joseph’s 2014 short film Dawn in Luxor. Commissioned by French/Japanese luxury fashion brand Kenzo, it puts in motion themes that Joseph’s work often embraces—a sense of out-of-time-ness, of indeterminate location, of the burnished grace of the black lives at its center.

A rickshaw stops atop a cliff overlooking the sea and a tall black woman emerges as, off-camera, a voice says, “Let’s meet the boy.” Inside a temple, a boy sits Indian style in white robes, face painted red. On a desert beach the boy contemplates a glistening dolphin washed ashore. A man (played by Ishmael Butler of Shabazz Palaces) orders fish from a woman (played by Eritrean model Grace Mahary) at a café. A figure under a jeweled cloak writhes on a hardwood floor. These images flicker across two screens in an offset loop over the meditative strains of Shabazz Palaces’ “Dawn in Luxor.”

Joseph’s cinematography—saturated colors abutting clips in high-contrast black and white—presents a sun-sparkled landscape not as a place of legend but rather an alternate reality. After all, even as the name suggests ancient knowledge, Luxor remains a functioning city in the here and now. Life in the film is just as mundane as ours, yet imbued with meaning there for the seeing. It’s a dream that defies materialism as it embraces it, a collision of spirit and flesh captured in motion.

In another gallery, Joseph’s Wildcat loops across three scrims arranged into a triangle and suspended from the ceiling. The short film flits through a day in the life of Grayson, Okla., home to a black rodeo tradition many generations old: a black kid on horseback in stunner shades. Black kids sitting on a rodeo barricade, cell phones in hand. A shirtless boy and a girl in a prom dress riding a quad at dusk.

Below the screens is a triangle of dirt taken straight from the rodeo grounds in Grayson. It still contains the remnants, physical and psychic, of a thousand rodeo rides. As it’s presented here, Wildcat depicts another very real place that Joseph mythologizes, not into aggrandizement but into stark, elegant reality: The phrase “black rodeo” seems contradictory, fantastical, but in truth many of the working cowhands of the America west were black; in truth the Moors of North Africa were masters of horsemanship centuries ago. The lineage isn’t hidden or esoteric but rather ignored, unsought and misapprehended by those satisfied with popular perception.

In the surrounding galleries, Davis’ paintings similarly conflate the extraordinary and mundane. A painting of a man holding what look like an oar and a fish is titled Man with Shotgun and Alien; this is Davis’ weird depiction of his brother. Isis, titled after the Egyptian goddess, is Davis’ depiction of his wife, Karon, in a birdlike golden dress. In 1984, Davis reproduces an old photograph of Karon as a child in Halloween costume, its content in conflict with its title. These works are familial and sober and also glorifying by virtue of their classical execution.

In Young Blood, family bonds are more than apparent—they’re everywhere. Everything. Not in a narcissistic or competitive sense but rather as the foundation of a living history. A touchscreen in one gallery explains that, through a partnership with LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Noah and Karon Davis have four years of exhibitions scheduled for the Underground Museum, ready to illuminate its underserved neighborhood. Joseph is the primary director behind Beyonce’s new visual album, Lemonade. Davis and Joseph are operating among the highest echelons of American culture, bringing their unwavering vision to the world, mortality be damned.

They were born and raised in Seattle, by the way, friends from grade school with Young Blood curator Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes. Barnes, too, is part of an artistic lineage that extends beyond the exhibit’s month-long run, that extends beyond the Frye itself and even the Underground museum. Their relationship makes up Young Blood’s DNA, exemplary of a larger legacy that the exhibition belongs to.

Like the lives frozen in Davis’ paintings and set in motion in Joseph’s films, what we see here is only a pinhole glimpse of genius vast and rich and generations old. This work is part of a vast tradition of “black brilliance”—a phrase Alley-Barnes uses often. Like historically marginalized cultures, artists can enlighten us only if we accept what they offer. Amid Young Blood’s stoic beauty is a subtle urgency: These days we’re losing our sense of self way too fast. 

Young Blood: Noah Davis, Kahlil Joseph, The Underground Museum is on view at the Frye until June 19.

Image credits: 

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

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.

Still from Dawn in Luxor, 2016. Two-channel 16mm film work with audio. Courtesy of The Underground Museum.

Kahlil Joseph. Still from Wildcat (Aunt Janet), 2016. Three-channel film work with audio. Courtesy of The Underground Museum. Kahlil Joseph.

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