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Art review: Noah Davis at Roberts & Tilton

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At first, Noah Davis’ exhibition at Roberts & Tilton looks like another rehash of Surrealism seen through the lens of gestural painting. Dream-like compositions and appropriated imagery are executed with a vague, casual hand. But spend some time with these lushly colored images and they begin to divulge intriguing, partial, but surprisingly emotional narratives that push the paintings beyond faux-naive Surrealism to touch upon harsher realities.

Many of the images refer to Richard Brautigan’s 1968 novella, ‘In Watermelon Sugar,’ a fantastical account of life in and around a commune built on the ruins of a former civilization. A standout is ‘Inboil,’ an image of a lanky figure against a dark, stage-like background, his raised right thigh nothing but bone. In the novella, Inboil is a rebel who commits suicide, and Davis’ portrait captures an isolated and sepulchral air that seems suitably post-apocalyptic.

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Yet one needn’t know the novella to pick up on the sense of isolation and mortality that runs through the show. One painting of a pajama-clad child sitting on a bed carries the warm, nostalgic charge of a family photograph, even though the child’s face has been flattened out into a skeletal white mask. The image is both tender and disturbing, and it’s hard to say exactly why.

In another painting, two men cut apart the carcass of an elephant. Cheekily titled ‘What We Did to the Elephant in the Room,’ it’s echoed on the opposite wall by ‘What They Did to Themselves,’ an image of two soldiers kneeling over the body of a young man. One soldier appears to hold the young man’s arm, which has morphed into a grayish orifice resembling an elephant’s trunk. The play between the two paintings makes an almost subconscious connection between slaying the unspoken and the unspeakable cost of war.

– Sharon Mizota

Roberts & Tilton, 5801 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (323) 549-0223, through Feb. 20. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.robertsandtilton.com

Images: 1984(top) and What We Did To the Elephant in the Room. Courtesy of Roberts & Tilton.


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