Noah Davis

Culver City

at Roberts & Tilton

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Noah Davis, a young painter based in L.A., titled his exhibition after a setting in Richard Brautigan’s novella In Watermelon Sugar. In the story (written in 1964, published 1968), “The Forgotten Works” is the name given to a landfill of sorts, an agglomeration of residue from a cataclysmic past that residents of the present sift through, extracting objects of personal resonance. Davis shares those scavenging instincts. His fine, stirring work mines a collective memory bank of art historical and literary associations, and is threaded through with a troubled yearning. He paints with the chromatic and emotional palette of an old soul wanting to reconnect with something lost.

At least five of the 13 large oil paintings in the show (from 4 feet square to 8 feet along one side) relate directly to Brautigan’s ambiguous tale of a rustic commune, and to that community’s internal tensions and brutish exiles. Davis recasts the characters as African-American and extrapolates from the text to picture them in moments of respite or tenderness. The painted surfaces shift from opaque color to thin, fluid drips, echoing the story’s oscillation in tone between chronicle and fable. Discontinuities of scale—a  man seen standing within an overturned drinking glass, for instance—mix the freshly imagined with the written record.

With an odd, flat exception or two, all the paintings exude a powerful, vaguely unsettling feeling of disequilibrium. 1984 (2009) is an indelibly disturbing portrait of a young child sitting on the edge of a bed before a flamingo-pink wall. The small figure wears a ghostly white mask with oval eye holes and a faint, incongruous smile. A dark brown shadow clings to his/her body, reading much like a second character. The image recalls the darkly psychological photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard in its tight conflation of mundane and grotesque, innocent and malign.

What They Did to Themselves (2010) is the other stunner in the show, a narrative fragment derived, perhaps, from a war photograph, subjected to the shape-shifting pressure of a dream. Two uniformed military men, one in egg-yolk yellow, the other mauve, crouch beside a sketchily outlined fallen figure. One of the soldiers, with an open, flat-cheeked face straight out of Gorky, meets our gaze as he raises the figure’s sleeve, empty and gaping yet oddly animate, like an elephant’s trunk. A disproportionately small bystander passes on the near side of the road but doesn’t register the scene or its strangeness. To look at the painting is to make eye contact across time, across logic. To Davis’s credit, that portentous moment lasts.

Photo: Noah Davis: What They Did to Themselves, 2010, oil on canvas, 77 by 94 inches; at Roberts & Tilton.