Noah Davis’ storefront installation titled “Imitation of Wealth” is nearing the end of its 5 month run at MOCA Grand. If you haven’t seen it, you have 3 days left, it’s free and it’s a fascinating work. The installation is housed in a small vacant conference room space across from the museum’s gift shop and is visible from the MOCA courtyard. Peering into the storefront that resembles a diorama of “who’s who” in contemporary art, the installation features 5 recreations of works by Jeff Koons, On Kawara, Dan Flavin, Robert Smithson and Marcel Duchamp. The exhibit is only accessible by viewing the works through storefront windows. While the perfectly executed replicas provide some conceptual commentary on the proclivities of the art world and the visibility of a chosen few, my interest in the work lies behind the reason why it was created.
“I like the idea of bringing a high-end gallery into a place that has no cultural outlets within walking distance.” Noah Davis, 2013, Art In America
Davis and his wife Karon opened the Underground Museum in a converted pupuseria located in Arlington Heights/West Adams in 2012 with the goal of bringing “museum quality art to a traditional African American and Latino working class neighborhood.” By embracing accessibility, the Underground Museum challenges the perception of the exclusivity of art. The concept is a noble one, however according to MOCA, when Davis reached out to museums and galleries he quickly found that institutions were unwilling to loan works to his new space. “Imitation of Wealth” was a response to that rejection and stands as a critique of the subjective standards of an art establishment that relies on exclusivity and perpetuates “otherness”. It was the first exhibition shown at the Underground Museum.
What I particularly like about “Imitation of Wealth” is that it encapsulates many of the themes I discussed in my Artist a Day Challenge posts this week.
In Ruckus on the Runway I explored adaptation. Black models featured in the Versailles runway show in 1973 show faced discrimination, racism and institutional bias in an industry that favors European aesthetics as the sole standard of beauty. The models in the Battle of Versailles challenged those limited notions of beauty and brought a level of individuality and energy to the runway that forever changed the game in fashion. Similarly, Davis flipped rejection on its head and created his own venue that not only provides exposure to new artists and “museum quality art” to the broader community, but he also exposed some of the vulnerabilities inherent in the art world today.
In “Double America”, Glenn Ligon challenges society’s penchant for flash and style over substance in much the same way that Noah Davis challenged the art world’s universal embrace of a chosen few.
Jefferson Pinder’s “Invisible Man” addresses visibility and value in the same way that Davis uses these well known contemporary art decoys in “Imitation” as a device to provide a commentary on visibility/invisibility in the art world.
Lastly, David Hammons questions wealth and accessibility with the works created in his Basketball Hoop series. Davis’ work compliments Hammons to the extent that both artists address questions of wealth, accessibility and disguise.
It’s worth noting that Noah Davis’ body of work beyond “Imitation of Wealth” commands additional exploration as he has been widely celebrated in his own right in the art world. His figurative paintings are dark, emotional, and expressive. In a subtle way “Imitation of Wealth” ultimately encourages us to explore art created by artists who may be invisible to the art world, but whose work and stories are equally relevant and important.
Sadly, around the time “Imitation of Wealth” was installed at MOCA in late August 2015, Noah Davis passed away at the age of 32 from cancer. “Imitation of Wealth” is part of a multi-year partnership between the Underground Museum and MOCA where the two organizations will collaborate on additional shows. Future exhibits featuring MOCA works curated by Davis will be on view at the Underground Museum in partnership with his surviving family and wife, fellow artist Karon Davis. The Underground Museum’s next show, “Non-Fiction” will open in March.
The “Artist a Day Challenge” celebrates Black History Month by highlighting Black artists and diverse forms of cultural expression across the African diaspora.