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Review: Flood victims search for higher ground in Karon Davis' powerful show 'Muddy Water' at Wilding Cran Gallery

Review: Flood victims search for higher ground in Karon Davis' powerful show 'Muddy Water' at Wilding Cran Gallery
Karon Davis, “Muddy Water” installation view. (Courtesy of the artist and Wilding Cran Gallery, Los Angeles)

In the large main space of Wilding Cran Gallery, Karon Davis’ powerful installation puts you in two places at once.

That’s not a bad place to be, and it speaks volumes about the complexity of current social relationships, particularly when empathy seems to be in such short supply that defensiveness seems to be everyone’s default setting. To step into the L.A. artist’s work is to come face to face with 12 people wading through floodwaters as they seek the safety of high ground. The scene, common to news coverage of hurricanes, tropical storms and other natural disasters, is given intimate and hauntingly dignified form by Davis, who has sculpted the men, women and children out of little more than plaster, fabric and chicken wire.

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Karon Davis, “Mami Wata,” 2018.
Karon Davis, “Mami Wata,” 2018. (Courtesy of the artist and Wilding Cran Gallery, Los Angeles)

The unpainted plaster recalls George Segal’s figurative sculptures from the 1960s. But Davis’ people are more individuated: their facial features more expressive and nuanced and, most important, black. Plus, Davis has sculpted their bodies as if quickly sketching a notebook study. Rather than finishing off every detail, she has left gaps in their torsos, legs and shoulders. This reveals the materials they are made of and gives physical form to the vulnerability of the human body, no matter the color of its skin.

Davis has also installed her figures so the ones in the foreground appear to be knee-deep in the muddy water of the exhibition’s title and the ones farthest back in the long, rectangular gallery are submerged to their waists or crouched low in a rowboat. That arrangement makes the space seem bigger than its literal dimensions. It is as if you are standing in a picture in which the artist has employed one-point perspective to create spatial depth. That illusion — of being in the same space as the displaced people — dissolves as you walk farther into the gallery. As more and more of each body disappears into the painted floor, you have to turn your head downward — or crouch low — if you want to see the people eye to eye. It’s disquieting. And unsettling. The floor seems to be swallowing them up as you stand above it all.

Karon Davis, “George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People (and Neither Does Trump),” 2018.
Karon Davis, “George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People (and Neither Does Trump),” 2018. (courtesy of the artist and Wilding Cran Gallery, Los Angeles)

Davis makes palpable the distance between the people caught in the onslaught of a natural disaster and those of us who watch from afar. With great efficiency, she allows visitors to imagine ourselves on each side of that divide. In a smaller adjoining gallery, a second installation shows two kids on the roof of a house as a shark’s fin protrudes from the rising waters.

Titled “George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People (and Neither Does Trump),” it has the presence of a 3D political cartoon: spot on in its assessment yet lacking the emotional depth and experiential resonance of Davis’ untitled installation in the main gallery.

(Wilding Cran Gallery, 939 S. Santa Fe Ave., (213) 553-9190, through Nov. 4. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. www.wildingcran.com)

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