“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.
“I had to hire someone just to open my mail because it was so daunting. I'd step into my office and there was all this mail on the desk and in bags. Most of them were bills, Davis says. “Each bag of the chemo was eight grand. When he was first diagnosed, he had to do four rounds of 24-hour drips, and we would watch them keep putting the bags up. By the time we left, I think our bill for that one visit was like at least $150,000. How do people do it today?”
In addition to these nurses, Davis created a series of sculptures of children — Children of the Moon — that reflect a more hopeful vision of the future. A couple of them are based on figures from Noah's paintings, taking his typically isolated individuals and joining them in a community. One girl throws a ball in mid-air, waiting for it to drop, while a boy holding a bouquet of flowers looks on. Fitted with glass eyes used in taxidermy, they radiate vitality despite their raw, unfinished edges.
Around the corner, in Wilding Cran’s smaller side gallery, Davis has recreated a hospital waiting room, complete with utilitarian furniture — garishly patterned chairs and a coffee table — gossip magazines and a stopped clock on the wall. Rather than the high drama of the hospital, the life or death struggles seen in Hollywood depictions, it reflects the way most people experience institutional healthcare. “We were always searching,” Davis says, “waiting for a cure, waiting to see the doctor, waiting to get the results. Waiting, all the time.”
Nearby, strips of fake grass are rolled out on the floor, recreating the patches of green outside the hospital doors where they would snatch brief periods of respite. Here, however, the bucolic scene abruptly ends in a tangled jumble of astroturf.
It also recalls the backyard garden oasis of the Underground Museum. “It’s a shame that so many works end up in storage, when they could be shared with a neighborhood and a community that needs it and will appreciate it,” Davis said of their impetus to found the space. “A lot of people [who walk into the museum] have never been to MOCA or LACMA. It opens their world.”
Although Davis has been consistently making artwork for a number of years, this is only her second solo show after a debut exhibition at the Museum that featured painting, photography and video art alongside sculpture. For the past few years, much of her focus has been on the Museum and on supporting her husband, not to mention their young son, Moses. “I didn't make work for awhile because there just wasn’t time,” she said. “With the Museum, we were surviving, living day to day, trying to keep the doors open, trying to find a cure, trying to just get by.”
When Wilding Cran approached her about doing a show, she was somewhat reluctant. “At first I was like, ‘I don’t know; am I ready to get in the studio?’” she recalled. “But I actually needed this. It was a huge part of my healing process and it gave me chance to pull back from the world and go into our studio in the hills of Ojai,” where they had relocated from Los Angeles shortly before Noah’s death.
“Pain Management” not only offered Davis a way to process feelings of grief and loss, but also a way to celebrate the personal and creative connection she shared with Noah. “At first it was very difficult because we used to make work together. I'm used to his presence in the space, so it was hard to make that adjustment,” she notes, “but the more I got into the work, I felt closer to him, because he was my teacher, my mentor, the love of my life.”
“Pain Management,” Wilding Cran Gallery, 939 S. Santa Fe Ave., downtown; through Nov. 12. wildingcran.com.