How Karon Davis Creates Unseen Images of Black Americans

The Underground Museum co-founder and widow of artist Noah Davis rekindles her creative practice with a solo show at Jeffrey Deitch that restages the Chicago 8 trial.

“Karon Davis: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished” at Jeffrey Deitch, New York. All installation photos by Cooper Dodds and Genevieve Hanson

Karon Davis met her future husband, the artist Noah Davis, while she was working as an assistant to a film director in Los Angeles. He was the one who encouraged her—then a self-described “closet artist”—to merge her disparate interests in theatre and sculpture. While the pair went on to co-found the Underground Museum in Los Angeles, a community incubator and vitalizing force that showcases work by vanguard Black artists such as Kahlil Joseph, Arthur Jafa, and Deana Lawson, Davis put aside her own practice to focus on the museum after Noah’s untimely death, from cancer, in 2015. (One of her sculptures appeared in David Zwirner’s acclaimed exhibition about Noah last year.)

Recently, however, Davis relocated from Ojai, California, to establish her own studio near the Underground Museum so she could revisit her creative side—not only to reflect on current times, but as a means of moving on after the death of Noah and her mother. Doing so has afforded Davis the perspective and creative stamina necessary to realize “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished,” her first solo show in New York and one that Jeffrey Deitch extols as “the best exhibition that [he’s] presented with an emerging artist ever.”

Across the cavernous gallery, Davis staged a sobering tableau about the notorious 1969 trial of the Chicago 8, in which Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale was bound and gagged in the courtroom on charges of inciting a riot. Multiple plaster cast sculptures recreate the horrific scene of Judge Julius Hoffman looming monstrously over a subdued Seale while vitrined jurors observe from a distance, visuals that were permanently seared into the collective memory of Americans through artist sketches (photography was strictly prohibited during the trial). Those images, in which Seale is portrayed as physically restrained yet defiant, have haunted Davis for years—and they became resonant during the past year’s reckoning with systemic racism. 

Though Davis had begun the cast sculpture of Seale more than two years ago, the horrific murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers and the resulting wave of protests against police brutality reignited her drive to realize the work. She completed the remaining sculptures—deconstructed figurations with sections of bodies missing—within three months. The haunting, ghost-like figures reflect an “in-between state” in which a broken body reflects a broken soul. (Look closely—Seale’s glass-blown eyes are glazed, frenetic, and unfocused.) Davis uses strips of plaster to wrap her sculptures, piecing her subjects back together in a technique akin to mummification not only of the figures, but of the stories of Black history that she’s compelled to tell.

Such stories often remain untold by mainstream media. Immediately upon entering the gallery, another cast sculpture of Seale is surrounded by 50 gilded bags of groceries. Described by Davis as a “garden of golden fruit,” the scene imparts the overlooked narrative about how the Black Panthers organized a free food program for Black children in Oakland, California. “Their work was about education and uplifting,” Davis tells ArtNet News. “They were demonized. They were criminalized just because they were trying to feed their people. We’re all about our community, and we’re working on getting our education program up and feeding the community. The show is personal that way.”

Davis also has a personal connection to the Chicago 8 trial: One of her father’s first acting gigs involved voicing the role of Seale for a reading of the trial transcript. The recording was released as a vinyl record, which her father often spoke about, but she never heard. Years later, when she eventually found the LP while sifting through old records in the back of an antique shop, she immediately felt driven to make the sculpture.

Though “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished” certainly feels like a tour de force, Davis has even more work on the docket. She’ll appear in an upcoming group show at The School by Jack Shainman Gallery, located in Kinderhook, New York, where she ponders school safety with cast sculptures of girls playing Double Dutch jump rope while a student hides under a nearby desk. “I was thrown into this. It’s been a huge learning curve,” Davis tells the New York Times, noting how the success of fellow Black female artists such as Lorna Simpson, Simone Leigh, and Njideka Akunyili Crosby has inspired her to carry on. “[Noah] wanted this for me so bad. I wish he was here to see it.”

“Karon Davis: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished” will display at Jeffrey Deitch, 18 Wooster Street, New York, until April 24.

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