An ArtTable Southern California event once again provided my first introduction to an extraordinary Los Angeles art space–the Underground Museum. It is situated in a series of connected storefronts on Washington Boulevard in Arlington Heights, a largely working class Black and Latino neighborhood in the heart of L.A. The space once served as the family home and studio of Noah Davis, a young African American artist who a decade ago began to achieve considerable renown for psychologically penetrating figurative paintings based on Black experience. Davis was also a gifted curator and in 2012 established the space as an alternative art venue for exhibitions and events, with primacy given to community engagement. His shows were brilliant, attracted notice and led to a strong relationship with curators at L.A. MOCA, who supported his exhibitions and lent major works. Davis (1983-2015) then became ill and tragically died from a rare form of cancer at the age of 32.
As Underground Museum director Megan Steinman explained, Davis left behind a list of 18 exhibitions he wanted to mount, which consisted of the titles of the shows and the works that would be in the exhibitions. The artist Karon Davis, his widow and the museum’s co-founder, and his brother, the filmmaker Kahlil Joseph, together with other family members and friends decided to keep his legacy alive and to mount the shows. In 2015 the Underground Museum became officially affiliated with MOCA in a multiyear collaboration (a community-based “satellite” situation that bears comparison with the Hammer Museum’s relationship with Art + Practice; more on this at another time).
The Underground Museum’s current exhibition, which is on view through March 2017, is Non-fiction, which takes as its subject violence against African Americans and the exposing and exploding of cultural stereotypes. It is a powerful, emotionally charged show, strikingly installed. It features 3 pieces borrowed from MOCA–a fierce, mural-scale painting by Henry Taylor (Warning shots not required, 2011), a work on paper by Kara Walker and a photograph, Wife of a Victim of Mob Lynching (1949) by Marion Palfi, the latter mounted on Robert Gober’s Hanging Man/Sleeping Man (1989) wallpaper. The Gober, as well as major works by David Hammons (In the Hood, 1993), Deana Lawson, Kerry James Marshall and Theaster Gates, were lent by the artists. The two works by Deana Lawson, which are perhaps the least familiar, are particularly notable.
Lawson’s Cowboys (2014) features the image of two powerful Black men on horseback while The Garden (2015) presents a nude couple in what is assumed to be the Garden of Eden. Davis left no exhibition narratives or commentaries to accompany his selections, but the works themselves speak volumes.
Speaking of gardens, it is when the visitor passes through the galleries to the outdoor space behind that the Underground Museum reveals itself as truly special. Steinman described the mission of the museum as being devoted to exposing a community that is physically and socio-economically removed from the art world to museum-quality art and to serving as a free and welcoming space for events, conversations, films and more. The enormous (given its inner-city location), gorgeous garden modeled after French parks that Noah and Karon Davis worked on before the artist’s death and that others have continued to cultivate provides an open space both for large gatherings and singular reflection. This oasis of calm and natural beauty provides a perfect complement to the intellectual and emotional stimulation of the art contained within and is yet another
component of Noah Davis’ impressive legacy.