On Guard: Dexter Davis at William Busta Projects
Dexter Davis is something of a legend. The African American artist was born half a century ago and raised on the wrong side of rust-belt red-lining, right in the middle of Cleveland’s soon to be notorious Hough neighborhood.
One of the youngest of eight siblings, Davis showed unusual artistic ability when he was still a child. Such talents aren’t always recognized, but he had a little luck, at least in this case. His profound gift helped him to earn scholarships, awards, and eventually a degree from the Cleveland Institute of Art. The friendships he made among his fellow students and instructors are still going strong, thirty years later, and his work slowly continues to come to the attention of museums and galleries beyond Ohio’s borders.
Davis is not a self-promoter, nor is his work easily assimilated to any particular trend or manner; he belongs to no school except his own. His visionary, splintered images descend into the past like Vergil and Dante visiting the Inferno, venturing into the turbulent, murky realm of forgotten things. Davis’s collages resurface with ragged handfuls of Hades — ancient passions, patchwork tales of murder, confinement, and pain — rendered in ink, smeared paint and torn paper. They recount an America heritage haunted by prejudice, violence, and injustice. They make the eye stop, halt and all but listen. At their best (and there are many great Dexter Davis compositions in private collections around the country) they lay down what amounts to a hybrid visual soundtrack, a music of gunshots, hope, and bitter disappointment. His works from the late 1980s all the way up to our so belated age of Black Lives Matter, present a dream of ancestors that merges into real-time events, awakening toward selfhood.
A piece of Davis’s own world, in the form of his large-scale work on paper “Black Heads,” hangs among other contemporary works in the permanent collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art — a spot on a wall located no more than a mile up town from his childhood home. In terms of race and class and financial stability, CMA is on the far side of the realtor’s red-line that pushed Hough into poverty and international notoriety following its famous 1968 riots. The fact that Davis has been a guard at the museum since 1994, and occasionally finds himself guarding his own painting, is either extremely ironic or wonderfully appropriate. It’s like the premise of an O. Henry short story. As you would hope, sometimes, though not too often, a chance arises for the guard to step out from behind his role and introduce himself (with due modesty) to visitors.
Dexter Davis’ current exhibit at William Busta’s brand new space on Waterloo Rd. shows seven smaller works on paper, but their size doesn’t get in the way of a powerful charge of visual complexity and strength. Like most of Davis’s paintings over the years, these are collages, put together mainly from shards of his own wood block prints and paintings. Collage takes bits and pieces broken off from reality, and offers them up to a new kind of signification, almost like a religious sacrifice. The bits and pieces of photographs, tickets, drawings, or diagrams may or may not retain some of their original identity. They’re useful in Dexter’s work because they don’t deny they once were something else. Collage pretends, claims nothing, but asks the artist and viewer alike to make something of it as it is, disreputable though it may be. The works on view at William Busta Projects contain plenty of painted and drawn passages, as artifacts of process, but also as moments of a world beyond the frame, fixed on paper like wind-borne fast food wrapping caught against a fence. As in his larger pieces, the fragments that Davis employs become pieces in an arcane puzzle, pushing toward a subterranean logic of the spirit. Their powerful motion is driven by the artist’s intent, but also by the jerky rhythm that four-sided figures encourage – bits and pieces cohere or fall apart in reaction, curtailed by edges but pushed again into the dance by their own jagged shapes and different tonal and textural values.
One of the paintings that Davis has stood next to for countless hours over the course of his Museum career is also one of CMA’s great treasures. It isn’t surprising that The Sacrifice of Isaac by Florentine master Andrea del Sarto has impacted Davis deeply, both as a dynamic image and because of its theme. Davis’s works at Busta’s are a series of meditations on the often fraught relations of fathers and sons, in a context of sacrifice and liberation. Titled Isaac A, Isaac B and so on, they push the seesaw, circular motions of their disparate elements toward maximum capacity. Like early paintings by abstract expressionist Phillip Guston (CMA has one of these and Davis has also cited Guston as an influence), they crowd and compress their visual elements into an unsolvable, fascinating tangle.
One salient feature of del Sarto’s famous work is the presence of pentimenti – painted passages reappearing from under layers of over-painting and varnish – including dek Sarto’s own final editing. In The Sacrifice of Isaac, a putto, or cherub, who brings the message of God’s mercy to a desperate Abraham, has sprouted an extra leg. Other parts of the canvas have developed a semi-transparent, tenuous aspect, and in general five centuries served to deepen the image, emphasizing the irreconcilable complexity of its message. The questions that the story raises about mercy and obedience are louder now, the apparent contradictions that characterize the Old Testament God harder to ignore. God has asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, and waits until the boy is bound and the faggots for the fire laid down, and the knife raised, before He says ‘Just kidding! This was a test!” More respectful analyses are possible, but it’s always going to be a difficult passage for sincere exegesis. It’s not at all surprising that Dexter Davis gravitated to this painting and recognized himself in its bottomless, very modern, alienated ambivalence, in the same way he has found the friends and teachers and materials he needs to remake his world.
The ripped-apart energies of violence encoded in the fragments of a collage are presaged by the ghostly pentimenti floating up through the centuries; so are the bitter ironies of the African American experience, where eleventh-hour reprieves, sadistic and absurd, may be mistaken for a good thing, and where grandiosity, hypocrisy and cruelty are layered over the beauty of the world like so much fog and trash. Looking for miracles anywhere in the present season, one that stands out here is Dexter Davis himself, and his gorgeous, moving odes celebrating the chiaroscuro of the human spirit.