In Conversation With Karon Davis: Her Art Touches a Nerve, While Her L.A. Museum Uplifts a Community
At the inaugural Frieze Los Angeles in February 2019, visitors came upon an installation of white plaster figures outside the fictional Martin Luther King Jr. Academy. Ascending the steps to the school was a white plaster figure of a teen, gazing up at a school official, also rendered in white plaster. Sitting in front of the school was another plater figure, this one of a teen. It would be an ordinary scene, if not for the fact that—despite their innocent expressions—all three had antlers atop their heads. They were prey. The title of the work was Game, and its juxtaposition of the everyday with the alarming is a signature of Karon Davis’ work. In addition to being an artist who is on the rise, Davis is the Co-Founder, with her late husband, Noah Davis, of the Underground Museum in Los Angeles. The UM hosts exhibitions as well as free meditation and yoga events, screenings, and community events—including a memorial for Nipsey Hussle the day after the tragic shooting that ended his life. We caught up with Davis to ask about the themes of her work, why it’s connecting with audiences at this particular time, and what’s in store for the UM.
Kristina Feliciano: White plaster figures are central to your installations. What is it about that medium that complements the themes you’re pursuing?
Karon Davis: Time lost. Time forgotten. Preservation of time. Capturing a moment or an emotion and mummifying it so it lives on. The plaster strips, to me, carry that ability; and their texture is similar to that of materials used by the ancients. The process of ancient morticians who prepared the bodies for the afterlife has always fascinated me. What is discarded? What is kept and why? I approach each piece that way. The Egyptians were great storytellers and keepers of their legacies. I try and follow in that tradition. The medium of plaster is all about timing. You might have seconds, minutes; it is all about faith. And sometimes it might come out how I envisioned or maybe not, or something unexpected might spring from its creation.
“The medium of plaster is all about timing. You might have seconds, minutes; it is all about faith. And sometimes it might come out how I envisioned or maybe not, or something unexpected might spring from its creation.”
Can you talk a bit about the concept of trauma in your practice? It appears in a number of notable works, like Cry, Baby, Muddy Water, and Game.
Trauma. They say, ‘write what you know’, right? I sculpt what I know. And if it is pain, I use it in order to release the trauma on my spirit. Otherwise, the fear, the sadness, the darkness would take over. I wrap all those feelings in the work, and now it lives outside of me. I am no longer the subject of trauma. I am an observer now. My weapons against my insanity are my hands. I just focus on the work, and it really is part of my healing. It is my church. It is my therapist. It is my sandbox. It is my baby. I need this process for my sanity. I channel my trauma or melancholy into it, and it gives me peace.
“My weapons against my insanity are my hands. I just focus on the work, and it really is part of my healing. It is my church. It is my therapist. It is my sandbox. It is my baby.”
In February, Artnet named you an “emerging” Los Angeles artist to watch, but you’ve actually been making art for years. What are your thoughts on the L.A. art scene, and why do you think your work is gaining particular traction now?
The L.A. art scene is blooming. It is beautiful to watch. I think we all feel a bit of a renaissance happening. I can’t really say why now. Is it timing, fate, luck? I hope it is because I worked my ass off, and I do it because I love it. Although I made art quietly for years with Noah, I never would show outside of the UM. Then Noah was diagnosed with cancer, and my priority was not a career; it was him and my son and then trying to keep the UM afloat. He always encouraged me to work even when it was really impossible. I will always cherish his belief in me and what he knew I could achieve. He saw things in me I couldn’t. I would laugh it off as the impossible. I was intimidated by his genius. He was the artist, not me. He believed in me when I didn't believe in myself. But we were living in quicksand. He was fighting for his life and fighting to keep the UM doors open. The UM is about family, community, and legacy. Those were our priorities, not the art world. Time has passed, and time has decided to bless me with what we dreamed of. There was little work to show until he transitioned, and I needed to be in our studio and work out my grief there. It was therapy. The show Pain Management was birthed from it all.
The Underground Museum is so much more than an exhibition space. Can you share some highlights from the museum’s initiatives since its 2012 founding and give us a peek at its future?
I am so proud of what we have accomplished over the years. From Non-Fiction to our current show, Roy DeCarava: The Work of Art. We have fulfilled our dreams and promises to our community by bringing world-class art and programing to the space. We are very sensitive to the physical, mental, and emotional needs of our neighbors. Yoga and meditation classes are expensive. Wellness has become a luxury. We heard the call and implemented with TropicsLA, free yoga and meditation. We are very proud of our wellness program. Kahlil curates Purple Cinema every year. This has become the highlight of the summer. It not only offers stellar filmmaking, but conversations with their filmmakers and actors. We have been blessed to have some of the world’s top thinkers, writers, chefs, filmmakers, musicians, activists, and artists speak and hang out at the UM. The UM is forever changing, like the moon. You just have to wait and see what’s next.
“We have been blessed to have some of the world’s top thinkers, writers, chefs, filmmakers, musicians, activists, and artists speak and hang out at the UM. The UM is forever changing, like the moon. You just have to wait and see what’s next.”
What are some of the art projects or opportunities you’re looking forward to in the coming months?
I am incubating and exploring. I do more than sculptures, so I look forward to sharing that work. I look forward to returning home to New York City and showing there in 2020.