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Kenturah Davis

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figurative, installation, video-art


The core of my work oscillates between portraiture and design, exploring themes related to the body, language and the formation of identity. From rendering a figure by writing a text repetitively to sewing highly individualized uniforms, my work unpacks layers of meaning embedded in how we socialize and perceive one another.

Employing the use of the written word to make drawings came about during my detour away from painting, as a way to investigate the mechanics of construction our personal and collective identities. I stripped my work of color and gesture and instead began to construct works on paper by layering hand-written text. The process of writing a text in repetition to compose the portrait became a metaphor for the way that we acquire and inhabit language. It also extended the work into the realm of a performative act, in which the process of making it is as important as the finished piece. I see the drawings as a series of conversions where the subject has first been rendered with light through the photographic process, then carefully converted to text as I filter the photographic information through my eyes and hand.

Understanding that the advent of the written word arrived as the capacity of human memory deteriorated situates the portraits as a kind of documentation that might extend the reach of collective memory and historical consciousness. My first experimentations were composed with hand-written text, some cursive some hand-printed. Following these early text drawings came further exploration using rubber stamp letters. In the way that the hand-written works engage with the history of penmanship and an individualized method of mark-making, the stamp drawings connect with industry, printmaking and a broader dissemination of information.

Regarding the Euphemisms series (2011): This drawing series consisted of several stamp drawings on paper and a large, hand-written wall drawing that specifically looked at the use of euphemisms as a rhetorical device to convey layers of meaning about the self. The work displays my fascination with the ever-growing scope of figures of speech and our ability to understand, exacerbate and/or neutralize meaning through everyday communications. The central piece in the show appropriates the phrase, “Terminate with extreme prejudice,” to compose a drawing of Troy Davis, the death row inmate executed by the state of Georgia in 2011, despite controversial circumstances. The expression has been used in military and covert operations as a euphemism for execution. Near the close of the installation, I veiled the drawing by hand with black ink as a performance. After the show, the piece was extracted from the wall to exist as a metaphor and artifact of Troy Davis’ story.

Regarding 1952 (2012): To commemorate Occidental College’s 125th Anniversary  Alumni exhibition, I was asked to created a site-specific drawing, measuring 132 x 96 inches. I selected one of Occidental’s first African American graduates, Janet Stafford, as the subject. Using one of her yearbook photos and an excerpt from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the piece touches on the complexities of social change during that time. The title of the drawing, 1952, aptly reflects the year of Stafford’s graduation from the school and the year that Invisible Man was published.

Regarding the Sonder series (2013): Expanding my drawing practice into one that engages time and space ignited following the Troy Davis performance of the Euphemisms series. I began to dissect my layering process into one that involved constructing the drawing on more than one plane. The resulting installation included one large sculptural piece and several related light-box drawings. The large work image is composed of three layers of translucent textiles, suspended from the ceiling, several feet apart from one another, measuring a total of 120 x 78 x 144 inches. The exhibition features a large site-specific installation and several related light-box drawings. The large installation is composed of three layers of translucent textiles, suspended from the ceiling, several feet apart from one another. The transparency of the material allows the viewer to see through parts of the first panel, into the second, while the distance between them allows the viewer to traverse inside the installation.

The first panel, bears this word sonder and its definition, in repetition:

sonder: the realization that each passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own, populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness; an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you will never know existed, in which you might appear only once as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway at a lighted window at dusk.

At the moment of this writing, the term “sonder” and its definition has only recently begun its course, clinging to the fringes of our expanding lexicon. You will not yet find it in the Oxford or Webster’s dictionary; rather, I found it and its origins in the online Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, a collection of newly assembled words that seek to embody the more oblique experiences of (post)modern life. I appropriated this word for the new series as a reflection of our ability to create meaning and also to explore portraiture in the context of social interaction.

The second panel bears the same text, however, converted to binary code. The third panel, is drawn with a custom made QR (Quick Response) code stamp, so those with mobile devices may scan a square section within the drawing and be taken to a URL with documentation on the show.) They are lit from above to intensify the image impressed on the surface, as well as to cast the shadows of the viewers passing by. In a structural sense, the drawing establishes a backdrop by which its audience may participate in the very realization proposed by the word, sonder. Upon approaching the work, we can begin to decipher that the first/front panel conveys a text and, at an intimate proximity, can read it to trigger a curiosity about the figures depicted in the drawing. The text on the second panel, a tapestry of the binary numbers, elicits a reading that is not comprehended in the literal sense; rather, it presents itself as a coded matrix that references a reduced expression of our existence. The third panel, QR code, is intended to engage technology in a self-reflexive look at the content of the work, by linking the viewer to a microsite with images and text about the project.

Regarding Smockshop and Panelshop project (2008-present): I joined Andrea Zittel’s artist collective, Smockshop, in 2008 producing simple garments that reinterpreted Zittel’s original design. As a testament to Zittel’s governing principle that “rules make us more creative” each smock conforms to a pattern of a simple double-wrap garment. Working within the set parameters I reconfigured the design so that my smocks hinged from the front and the back, rather than the sides then sewed this smock and quilting techniques associated with African American culture. Panelshop is Zittel’s latest enterprise with a similar endeavor to work with a set of rules to produce products that explore a variety of functions for the rectangular form. I have contributed a series of scarves that are layered fabric assemblages that expand and contract, morphing from a flat surface to a fully functional object. Both Smockshop and Panelshop explore the intersections of function and fashion, design and life, commerce and art, limitation and freedom. The concepts explored in these endeavors echo in the evolution of my art practice through my experimentation with materials.

Recent Exhibits

Kenturah Davis participated in these exhibits:

Aug, 2014 Narratives and Meditations
May, 2014 LACE Benefit Art Auction
Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE)
Feb, 2014 O P E N
Mar, 2013 Sonder: a site specific installation by Kenturah Davis
Mar, 2012 Be Beautiful Project
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