Dexter Davis: A Portrait

In the months just after I started work at the Cleveland Museum, I struck up a friendship with one of the guards who was always impeccably well-groomed and well-dressed and always had something interesting to say.  He seemed both gentle and genteel—someone with whom one might comfortably have a drink at a neighborhood coffee house.  Only later did I discover that this guard, Dexter Davis was a well known local artist in Cleveland. Eventually I began seeing Dexter’s work in local galleries, and I was struck by an intriguing contrast.  How could I reconcile the polite, well-mannered gentleman with the artist who creates such powerfully expressive images of masks and ghosts and trees with spirits and the body outlines of people who have been murdered?   Dexter creates images that are often angry; that are sometimes a little frightening, and that deal with themes of anxiety and violence, although there’s also something about them that’s magical and liberating.

Dexter’s art  has an African quality, which feels like it comes out of something deeper than just being exposed to African art through museum visits or books.  Not only the imagery but the colors, the visual rhythms, and most of all the deeper purpose of the art–its connection with the world of spirits and healing—all exude a spirit that feels African.  Sometimes his work feels as though it’s not so much the creation of an artist as a shaman.

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And let me here say something obvious about Dexter Davis the artist, Dexter Davis is African-American.  In fact, his art is very autobiographical, and delves into childhood and memory with the intensity of a novelist like Marcel Proust.

It’s very much about what it’s like to grow up as an African American, in a very tough neighborhood and in utter poverty.  It’s also very much about a cultural inheritance which for all the displacements and disruptions of several centuries, still retains some of the aura of Africa, not just as a sort of garment on the surface, but as something intrinsic.  Indeed, the African-ness in Dexter’s art is a wellspring of healing and consolation.  There are some affinities between Dexter’s works and Picasso’s famous Les Demoiselle’s d’Avignon, a painting which also carries out an act of exorcism.  But Picasso was borrowing the imagery and magic of African art as a game of “Let’s Pretend.”  For Dexter it’s a genuine part of his being.

Many modern paintings explore concerns that exist only in the realm of art:  formal relationships, the picture plane, harmonies of color, and things of that sort.  Dexter’s paintings come from a different place:  from a real-life need.

Yet at the same time, like all good art, Dexter’s work seems to transcend limitations of time or place, to speak a language that crosses boundaries of culture.  And he himself is quite insistent that he’s interested in communicating a universal message.  As he says, “I am an African-American.  But my work is a spiritual thing.  It meets everybody.  It’s an energy.  I have to ignite the energy force.  I don’t do it from the standpoint of being angry.  I do it from the standpoint of healing.”

This then is the seeming paradox of Dexter’s art. It is very much a product of a specific background, time, and place, but at the same time it has universal qualities. It deals with universal issues of trauma and healing. Though rooted in suffering, it’s without exception hopeful.

Dexter grew up on East 89th Street in Cleveland, a street which went through many changes during his childhood.  At the beginning it was a very poor but stable neighborhood.  But then came the the Hough riots, and things got bad.   On the street where he lived, the days were marked by gunshots.  “At the apartment next door to our house there was always an ambulance or a police car,” he says.  “People were always killing each other.”  One very warm summer afternoon, in 1973 when Dexter was eight, he was sitting on the porch escaping the heat when a black Cadillac drove up.  Two men got out, opened up the trunk, and lifted out a dead body which they threw on the front yard.  He ran away screaming.

Things got very bad after his father left in 1977, after some violent confrontations with his older brothers.  His mother took a job caring for old people, but there often wasn’t money enough to buy food at the end of the month.  “As a kid all I wanted was the necessities,” he recalls.  “Plus the little prize at the bottom of the Cracker Jacks box.”

Adams-Dexter-Davis-Food and Money

His recent Food and Money (2012)  refers to this period when things were terrible in the family and in the neighborhood.  When he was about twelve, things were so desperate that one of his brothers went out and robbed a 7-11 grocery store in order to get food.  He later went to jail for it.  Dexter was just a kid at the time and didn’t fully understand what was going on.  He was just happy to get a box of Cracker Jacks when they brought everything back.  As an adult he can see that robbing stores isn’t a good thing to do.  On the other hand, surely people shouldn’t be pushed down to the point where they need to steal just to get something to eat.

Dexter’s talent was recognized early, while he was attending West Tech High School. He was able to obtain a scholarship to attend the Cleveland Institute of Art. Shortly after graduation, he began working full time as a guard at the Cleveland Museum of Art.   For some people the job might become dull but for Dexter it provided a place of calm apart from his artistic work, and a chance to commune daily with great works of art.  He is drawn alternatey to obscure works, and those by famous masters.   “I always look for people who are obscure, but then I find myself going back to people that I started out with.  I mean, I go to Picasso.  La Vie by Picasso in the museum is one of the things I always go and look at.  I like De Kooning, I always like the Abstract Expressionists.  Philip Guston.  Some of the London School people and obviously the Cobra School.”  In his own work he often has often found inspiration in an impressive variety of sources, including African art, Indian sculpture, and Islamic textiles.

Dexter usually works simultaneously on several pieces at a time, often a series unified by a concept And while working, he puts himself into a sort of shamanistic state.

“It’s almost like Jackson Pollock.  I go crazy; I move everywhere.  I usually play loud music, have the TV on, I have lots of white noise in the background; and these things put me in a trance, and yet also  make me focus on what I’m trying to do.  Somehow creativity is bigger than I am. You can feel it happening to you.  There’s no word for it.  It’s just an experience you go through.”

Bush Baby” (2012)  is about the Bush, the jungle, and the city.  I met a lot of people who wanted to live, but they were so in the Bush, which means the ghetto, that you look in their eyes and there was nothing there.  They just got completely consumed by everything that happened in their lives.  Most people would not even notice them because they’re so ingrained in this environment that they’re almost invisible.  It breaks my heart because there’s something still there, still alive in some of these people, but it gets to a point where you have to save yourself, because if you get too close they will pull you in.  I try to do the best I can.  This is my way of communicating how I feel.  Most people don’t understand them.  They’re beautiful but they’re so apart from reality that they can’t come back.”

In 2000, Zygote Press in Cleveland invited Dexter to serve as artist-in-residence to do a series of prints.  Most of the time the studio was quiet and empty and he would work in peace.  At the time he was looking at French artists of the Cobra school such as Christian Dotremont, Corneille and Karel Appel.  He had always enjoyed mixing images together.  At Zygote he got particularly interested in the chine-colle technique in which two sheets of paper—often already imprinted with designs—are run through the press together and fused to each other.  This made it possible to combine different print-making techniques—for example, to combine a woodblock with a monotype, or a woodblock with an etching.  He also enjoyed applying color by hand to create unusual effects.

Adams-Dexter Davis with Cleveland Museum of Art collage BlackHeads

A major breakthrough in Dexter’s career occurred at this time when The Cleveland Museum of Art purchased his work, Black Heads (2010), at the insistence of the Curator of Drawings,  Heather Lemonedes.  Dexter would concur that it’s one of the best things he’s ever made.

“Everything came together in that particular piece.  I actually put my handprint in one of the images of hands.  I remember when I was in the South of France, we went to a cave site and I saw a cave with hand prints on the walls.  When I started my work, I used the entire human form in my work and then I thought, ‘What is it I’m trying to say?  I felt it was more powerful to take away certain things and make people have to search for what is there.”

He had started Black Heads in his studio on Superior Avenue that caught fire, and the piece was almost completely destroyed.  After the fire, he salvaged what he could; and he then combined it with something else that had been badly damaged in the fire—Icarus, a beloved print by his old professor, Henry Cassill, which had cost him a lot of money.  Casill had passed away a little after he purchased it. After the fire, Cassill’s widow found out about his plight and she came to talk to Dexter .  She gave him art supplies from her husband’s studio and working tools to finish the piece.  That was an incredible push.

“Most of my classmates from the Art Institute only dream to have a work they’ve made on display at the museum.  But I’ve got one in the Cleveland gallery.  Once in a while my department would put me somewhere near the piece so that I could enjoy it.  And it was wonderful.  You don’t really have to brag about it, you can just stand there and watch people, and if they ask a question you can get in a conversation. I enjoy seeing people enjoying themselves.  I’ve met people from Japan, people from Chile.  I’ve had families that took pictures of them with me and the painting.  They were so excited to see a living artist in a museum with his own work.

At the time they purchased the piece they were trying to figure out if the label should say it was African-American or American. “American,”   Dexter said. “I wanted to be a part of the whole and not separate myself.”

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The question of the African qualities of Dexter’s work raises fascinating questions.  Surely in part this comes from his time spent in the Cleveland Museum, where he can view superb African carvings as well as works by western artists, such as Picasso, who have been influenced by African sculpture.  He clearly has a sophisticated knowledge of such sources.  But in a significant way it’s also clear that the African qualities of Dexter’s work go deeper, that they’re not simply a borrowed language, but a natural idiom of expression. The sense of rhythm, ritual, and magic that permeates his work, the sense of a world permeated by spirits, surely has an affinity  with African tradition.

If we consider how Dexter works, it’s clear there are many parallels with what we find in African tradition.  For one thing, his process of creation is essentially rhythmic. Often he plays music, turns on the television, creates forms of background noise to push himself into a creative state of mind—indeed, a sort of trance-like shape like that of a shaman.  He enters a zone.  What fuels his art, he confesses, is “Anxiety.”  In other words, his art strives to push into a zone beyond that of normal reality—into the world of spirits and trance.  He invariably works on several works of art at once, creating a sort of contrapuntal relationship between them; and in each individual work what he seeks is a sort of rhythmic connection between images (or patterns) that are repeated (though with variation) throughout the composition in a pattern with syncopated rhythms.  In representing things, such as the human body he often focuses on particular sites of power—such as hands, eyes, faces—and eliminates the rest of the figure.  He loves to make use of objects, such as bones (which naturally make one think of life and death), or particular forms of paper ephemera such as discount coupons or paper bags, that have associations with the narrative he’s exploring.  While his art has generally been “realistic” in its visual language, his  images function religiously and symbolically, and often present moral dilemmas or moral questions.

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This sense of images that speak to each other, that are engaged in dialogue, is particularly strong in Dexter’s recent work.  While his early work tended to present “a message,” more and more his recent work seems to portray “a conversation” with his past, and with himself.

Dexter’s his recent work seems to circle back to his artistic beginnings. Much of it takes a retrospective look at some of the darkest moments of his life. But he also sees these works as a part of the road on a larger journey.  He feels he’s in a good place.

One of his most recent works, Conversation (2014) looks back to a period when he was  thinking about death, feeling almost suicidal.  In some ways it goes back to the issues he dealt with in his early work, but in a more reflective way.

“There was a time when I was so isolated and I was very poor.  I had to find a way to pull myself out of my depression.  You sit there by yourself and you ask what could be done to make things better, and your beat yourself up a bit.  I was using whatever materials were around in my studio and my place and converting the energy, turning the materials into something that would be, for me, a surviving mechanism.

At that time I thought that the devil and death were there with me.  That’s me on the left, the devil in the middle, and death on the other side.  It’s a conversation that I had to do to get myself centered because I felt at that time I was so close to nothing that I could easily just let everything go.  It was about how to keep myself alive and not to fall into a situation where everything goes dark. “

There’s a rich quality to the piece, both in the figures, which feel like African statues, and in its qualities of syncopated visual rhythm.  At the same time, it’s a very contemporary piece, the product of an American who lives in the early 21st century, who’s been around the block, who’s aware of psychoanalysis, who knows about art history, who’s aware of contemporary social issues.  In visual guise it poses questions that are more often posed in words.  It’s about having a deep conversation with yourself and it approaches this issue with depth and an awareness of the complexity of issues of right and wrong.  If we want to be healed, it seems to propose, if we want to heal the world, we need to start by engaging in a conversation with the devil.


Dexter Davis: A Portrait will inaugurate the opening of the newly renovated School of Art Gallery at Kent State University, Kent, Ohio. The exhibition opens on September 1 and runs through October 7, 2016. It is accompanied by an 80 page catalogue written by Henry Adams.