St. Louis-based artist Damon Davis works in many forms, from visual art to hip hop records. His profile has grown steadily in recent years. He's now showing a deeply conceptual, richly realized exhibition at the Luminary, on Cherokee Street, that he calls the culmination of his years of art-making collaborations.
The show, called "Darker Gods in the Garden of the Low-Hanging Heavens," is built around a series of myths and fables Davis wrote, featuring black deities.
This exhibition is a sprawling, multimedia affair. It incorporates photographs, sculpture, a short film and materials including two ram’s horns and a wooden case that was built to hold sewing supplies. For the gallery-goer who just happens upon the show, there's already a lot to dig into. But to more fully unlock the layers of meaning here, it's necessary to do some background reading.
The works here all fit into a detailed mythology Davis composed, which tells the story of 12 gods — black gods who look over the black experience. They’re seen in digitally manipulated photographs Davis took of people he knows. One photo is of a man whose eyes are eerily absent. There’s a hole in his torso and his skin has a rough and weathered patina.
“He is the god of the ghetto children, of the people that’s forgotten and the people that you throw out,” Davis said. “The poor people in primarily black communities that figure out a way to make something out of nothing. And all of those people that you look down on, but the opportunities weren’t there for them so they figure out how to do something else. The god that cares about those people.”
Then there’s the child with three eyes, called Blake the Great. In Davis’s mythology, he was the god of creativity, but had his inspiration stolen by a pale horse who tied him down with gold chains.
“The pale horse could only mimic the creativity this child god had,” Davis said. “It's kind of an ode to just black American culture and how it gets used by white people. How it gets stolen and re-appropriated and done, kind of like — they can learn how to do it, but the soul is always missing in a lot of these. Popular music in the last 150 years has come from black ghettos, and it's come from black people and ingenuity and making it up. In some of the worst circumstances, too."
Some photographs have offerings of flowers beneath them, giving the appearance of a shrine.
‘A line to majesty and grace’
Local poet Jacqui Germain, who is contributing an essay for the show’s catalog, said Davis is taking negative stereotypes about African-Americans, and the whole Western notion of darkness as something to fear, and turning all that on its head.
“Blackness is a central focal point but it isn’t seen as a line to death or a line to evil," she said, "it’s a line to majesty and grace and elegance and power.” As a maker of art, Davis pretty much does it all. The film he co-directed about the Ferguson uprising, "Whose Streets?" screened at the Sundance International Film Festival last year, and he recorded an album to accompany this show.
Occupying all the space at the Luminary, it is largest show of his career.
One hallmark of Davis’ work is collaboration with other artists.
That’s on display here, from Audrey Simes, who choreographed a dance seen in the exhibition's short film, to the folks at Citizen Carpentry, who made the black-charred wooden frames that hold some of pieces. Kevin McCoy, who is putting together the show catalog with his wife and artistic partner, Danielle McCoy, said it's no surprise that Davis reached out to other folks to help him execute his vision for this show — or that they turned up to be a part of it.
"Damon has always been a person looking out for others. Creatively, physically, spiritually. [This exhibition is] just Damon being a conduit as always. He’s always trying to incorporate so many different eyes to make something great,” McCoy said.
Davis acknowledged that he's asking a lot from viewers of this work who want to engage with it fully. But he says it's worth it.
“Anything worth having, it got to take a little work. I had to work to make it happen, but I ask my audience to just meet me halfway. Meet me in the middle, you know what I mean? And some people will like it, some people won’t.”
If you go
- What: "The Garden Of Darker Gods And The Low-Hanging Heavens"
- Where: The Luminary, 2701 Cherokee St., St. Louis
- When: Through July 12
- Tickets: Gallery admission is free.
Follow Jeremy Goodwin on Twitter @JeremyDGoodwin.