From the first second you walk through the door of downtown’s Wilding Cran Gallery and into Muddy Water, everything goes quiet. Karon Davis’ new sculptural installation inside is calm but it’s also eerie, how the sight of an advancing group of plaster-white figures seems to rise to greet you, and the roughly painted brown and blue walls contribute to an atmosphere of solemn mystery. Nothing is moving, but a lot is happening — in the room and then, in your soul.
Muddy Water is a collection of sculptural portraits and vignettes, but it is almost more a holistic installation that contains a broad allegory of trauma and survival, expressed through the individual narratives and their relationships to the viewer and one another. The show’s title refers to Bessie Smith’s 1927 recording of “Muddy Water,” a song about the Great Mississippi Flood, but its images and scenarios were directly inspired by news reports — and, saliently, the artist’s personal account — of recent natural disasters, from storms in Houston and Puerto Rico, to fires, floods and mudslides in Montecito and Ojai. A separate project room installation deals directly with Hurricane Katrina.
As the figures in the room seem to be trudgingly following the lead figure, "Old Man Moses," in a loose flock formation, each one is depicted just a little deeper in the symbolic water or mud that threatens them. Each carries a loved one, a pet or their meager belongings and moves forward on foot. All, that is, except for the multifigure installation that shows a local man towing a rowboat containing an old woman and all the heirlooms she could get hold of. By the back of the gallery space, the final figure is submerged to her waist.
The figures are a crisp white, made of full-body plaster casts, which evokes a surreal juxtaposition of both raw craft and classical marble statues. The fine details of their jaunty imperfections, richly textured surfaces, and focused, intense facial expressions pop against the darkened background. Davis has painted the gallery in the roiled palette of literal muddy waters; movingly, she describes this gesture as not only an architectural element of the installation but also, by the act of painting itself, an homage to her late husband, painter Noah Davis. She notes wryly the realness of what people grab in an evacuation scenario — for her it was her son, her husband’s paintings and the family pet.
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Davis’ background in dance and film gives her work a core strength of theatricality and choreography that taps into sense and muscle memory in the viewer, as well as aesthetic spectacle. Working from photographs and live models gives the actions the immediacy of authentic experiences. But while the poignant anatomical disruptions form a metaphor for the trauma of individual and community experiences and instincts for survival, the work is more than autobiographical. It is also a much larger study of the real effects of climate change, which include displacement, involuntary migration and PTSD.
Wilding Cran, 939 S. Santa Fe Ave., downtown; (213) 553-9190, wildingcran.com. Wed.-Fri., 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sat., noon-6 p.m.; Sun., noon-4 p.m., through Nov. 4.