Karon Davis’ sculpture installation at Wilding Cran Gallery transports you into an eerie dreamlike flooded world where time has been suspended and all that remains is a melancholy sense of emptiness tinged with despair. This show’s simple evocative atmosphere poignantly distills disaster victims’ sorrows and black Americans’ larger struggles.
A recent evacuee from devastating California wildfires, Davis titled her exhibition “Muddy Water” after blues singer Bessie Smith’s 1927 song about returning home after the Great Mississippi Flood. Interspersing the gallery are ten plaster figures whose helpless frozen gestures and rough textures recall Pompeii mummies, but with far more elegant expressiveness.
Evoking a mysterious landscape deluged as far as the eye can see, gallery walls are painted with sapphire sky meeting murky umber water at a hazy horizon line. Sharply contrasting with this gloomy background, the group of sculptures appears mournful and ghostlike.
Portraying people with African features, Davis’ unpainted sculptures are bright white, de-emphasizing color in favor of form and feeling. Their stark pallor evokes classical Greco-Roman statues; yet instead of being made of smoothly finished marble, Davis’ flood survivors are roughhewn in plaster. With rugged surfaces, visible chicken wire, palpable plaster strips, and undisguised joint lines, her figures’ inchoate appearances betoken their cataclysmic state of limbo. Gaps in their cavernous shells betray armatures appearing as bleached bones.
Though hollow, these sculptures are not devoid of personality. Small details such as glass eyes, eyelashes, a ball cap, and real hair individuate each character and imbue Davis’ timeless concept with contemporary flair. With titles like Noah and his Ark, Biblical allusions anchor her modern protagonists’ tribulation in a rich historic continuum of flood symbolism.
The gray concrete gallery floor signifies the “muddy water” where her figures wade in various states of inundation. The further you traverse the oblong gallery, the deeper the water seems to get as successive sculptures appear more submerged: first ankle deep, then knee deep, waist deep, and finally up to their chests.
The installation’s layout is subtly confrontational. The figures all face you as you enter the gallery, and as you progress, you pass them by, traveling in the opposite direction of their implied movement. As you stand amidst them, it becomes clear that you are not symbolically sharing their struggle; you are only observing. This is especially apparent as the figures successively sink lower and lower while you stay at the same level as though walking on the water’s surface, looking down at them.
The roles are reversed when you enter an attached installation, George Bush doesn’t care about black people….and neither does Trump (2018). Here, you feel as though you’re floating below two figures occupying the sloped roof of a swamped house slanting ominously above you. This topsy-turvy environment simultaneously represents indoor and outdoor aftermath with water-stained doors and ruined ornate wallpaper surrounding the submerged roof. Its before-and-after convergence evokes total ruin and underscores the fact that for disaster victims, surviving is often just the beginning of a toilsome string of privations including long-term displacement.
Davis is artistically driven by a desire to translate her own personal tragedies into something more universally meaningful. Her portrayed inundation could be anywhere: New Orleans, Puerto Rico, Houston, Mexico Beach, or some unknown site of a terrible deluge yet to come. Evincing her theatrical experience as a film school graduate, her sculptures appear as actors in suspended animation pantomiming the feeling of time having stopped during a disaster. Despite her show’s grim topic, her slogging protagonists’ dogged determination to reach higher ground bespeaks resilience in the face of adversity.
Karon Davis, “Muddy Water,” Sep. 15-Nov. 4 at Wilding Cran Gallery, 939 S. Santa Fe Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90021.