Live Through This: In Conversation With Artist Karon Davis
This feature is in the December "The Creators" Issue. Click here to subscribe.
Karon Davis, “Pink Male Dancer” (2020) PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND WILDING CRAN GALLERY, LOS ANGELES
“Everything I have studied and lived is contributing to my practice,” says artist and co-founder of The Underground Museum Karon Davis (@karondavis). And she has undeniably lived and studied the experiences. Like most artists, life has influenced her work, but the characters who have been a part of her unique journey are often considered masters. Though, to her, they’re simply family.
Davis was born to Nancy Bruner, a ballerina, and Ben Vereen, the Tony Award-winning stage legend. Through them both she unconsciously digested a well of wisdom that she still drinks from today. For instance, for her, her father’s success was “a lesson in fame and how fickle it can be,” she says, stating, “So don’t strive for it. It is about the work, period.”
Karon Davis, “Game: 943am” (2020) PHOTO BY: EJ HILL/COURTESY OF JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK
Her mother, Bruner (who passed away in 2019), was less known than Vereen but an icon in her own right, especially to Davis. “She was a beautiful dancer. She had four girls and gave up her career to raise us. She was tough. I was close to my mother,” Davis notes.
“I was dreaming up a sculpture show about dance and she was a part of that process. My show next fall at LGDR is for her.” Previewing the upcoming work, she explains, “The title, Beauty Must Suffer, came from her lips. She always said that and always in a different context—whether it was about the physical pain a dancer endures to achieve greatness or the hurdles of life. We all perform. We all, at some point, have to grin and bear it.”
Karon Davis’ No Good Deed Goes Unpunished exhibit, installation view (2021) PHOTO BY: COOPER DODDS AND GENEVIEVE HANSON/COURTESY OF JEFFREY DEITCH GALLERY, NEW YORK
It’s clear her heart is deeply connected to her mom and dad, but there’s another family member she credits in a major way for helping her realize her life as a visual artist: the painter Noah Davis, to whom she was married until his untimely death in 2015.
“We were each other’s teacher and muse. His presence still influences me. I feel him every time I step into the studio,” Davis powerfully shares. “When I met Noah, he saw I was a closet artist and encouraged me to free myself and pursue another path. I went to the Noah Davis School of Fine Art.”
Karon Davis, “Mary” from the series Pain Management (2016), installation view: Prospect.5, Yesterday we said tomorrow (2021-22) PHOTO: BY ALEX MARKS/COURTESY OF PROSPECT NEW ORLEANS
The past with her parents and Noah created an exceptional toolkit to assist Davis’ striking present and future work. She’s mostly known for breathtaking sculptures of people acting out historical or imagined scenes. In her 2019 installation Game, she placed antlers on the heads of students and a principal of a fictional school, commentating on school gun violence. Her 2021 exhibition, No Good Deed Goes Unpunished, focused on Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale.
When you see Davis’ work, it’s clear she’s that girl. But also, it’s evident she cares more about the messages her art delivers than the acclaim she rightfully deserves.
Davis, “Lounging Nude No. 1” (2022). PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND WILDING CRAN GALLERY, LOS ANGELES
“THE SEEDS I HAVE BEEN PLANTING WILL BLOOM IN THE NEW YEAR, AND I AM READY TO SMELL THE ROSES.” –KARON DAVIS
As Davis looks forward, with an upcoming work for New York City’s High Line park (“When I think of New York, which will always be home to me, it is so tied to dance and the performing arts. So the work will be along that vein”) and just at life in general, she can’t help but bubble with excitement. “The seeds I have been planting will bloom in the new year, and I am ready to smell the roses,” she says.
Karon Davis, “Hair Peace” (2019) PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND VICTORIA MIRO GALLERY, LONDON
With the caliber of work Davis has previously offered, one can’t help but imagine she’ll be basking in the aroma of dozens upon dozens of those roses, rightfully so.