Unrepresented: The Tabloid Scenes of Noah Davis’s Savage Wilds

The six new paintings comprising Savage Wilds by L.A. artist Noah Davis pop wildly with disparate references, ranging from talk show host Maury Povich to Mondrian.  Evocative of flat screens with TV show logos in their corners and caption-like titles, such as Crush on Daughter In-law, this new body of work on view at Seattle’s James Harris Gallery (through August 24th) has the feel of an electronics store with screens on every surface. Creating the visual equivalent of surround sound through their flailing figures, physical confrontations and pointed details, the artist’s imagery instantly draws the viewer into the works’ commanding narratives.

Noah Davis | Crush on Daughter In-law, 2012, Oil on canvas, 48” x 48”, image courtesy of James Harris Gallery.

The title Savage Wilds references the controversial 1988 play of the same name by Ishmael Reed, in which two women hosting a game show hire an African American comedian to be hunted live on television.  When rubber bullets are mistakenly replaced with real ammunition, the stakes for questions of spectacle and exploitation rise exponentially.  Davis’s paintings achieve a similarly pointed impact through charged scenes loaded with dense imagery that exist in a space estranged from reality but still in many ways familiar.

Noah Davis | Jerry, 2012, Oil on canvas, 60” x 74”, image courtesy of James Harris Gallery.

In Jerry, the shoes strewn across the stage reference a lowbrow hallmark of fistfights that have come to define The Jerry Springer Show.  A Caucasian security guard and cameraman surround two faceless black women. Squares evoking a highly literal reference to cubism comprise one woman’s body, simplifying her form into a more basic representation.  In Maury Mondrian, a direct nod to the Dutch master slips into the background while a border of geometric forms obscures the scene.

Noah Davis | Maury Mondrian, 2012, Oil on canvas over panel, 48” x 54 ¾”, image courtesy of James Harris Gallery.

The calculated disjointedness between the real and abstracted elements embedded throughout Savage Wilds brings the constructed nature of the American talk show into focus.  While tabloid programs such as The Jerry Springer Show and Maury became ubiquitous enough in the 1990s that their exaggerated and fictional approach to content is widely known, they continue to broadcast a false representation of the people who appear on their shows, many of which are people of color or of low income. The scenes of Savage Wilds succeed in capturing the limited and absurd views such media portrayals create. Moreover, the faces and the moments Davis overtly obscures indicate the more complex details that so often go without representation.

Noah Davis | You Are…, 2012, oil on canvas over panel, 48” x 72 3/8”, image courtesy of James Harris Gallery.

Noah Davis | The Maury, 2012, Oil on canvas, 24 ¼” x 30”, image courtesy of James Harris Gallery.


Savage Wilds is on view at James Harris Gallery in Seattle, WA through August 24, 2012.

Noah Davis lives and works in Los Angeles, CA. He studied at the Cooper Union School of Art. His work is included in the collections of the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.  Recent exhibitions include The Forgotten Works at Roberts & Tilton in Culver City, CA; More Paintings at Galerie Annarumma 404 in Napoli, Italy; and group show 30 Americans at the Corcoran Museum in Washington, D.C.

Erin Langner is a writer based in Seattle and is Manager of Adult Public Programs at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM)


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