In “Weightless,” artist Damien Davis gives reverent attention to the physical mechanics of the developmental stages of creating art. The exhibit, at the Mrs. gallery in Maspeth through May 8, underscores that function and utility, and even the creative process itself, are fine art forms in their own right, decorative by definition. On a certain foundational and visceral level, function over image ultimately assures the presence and value of both.
“I like the honesty of artistic labor, and I’m interested in challenging the conventional picture of what artistic labor looks like. I’m constantly asking, what is a traditional display and how do I reject it? Why does art need to be in a frame, at a right angle, or on a pedestal?” Davis says.
Laser-cut acrylic, stainless steel hardware, wood and other materials show the literal nuts and bolts of the Louisiana-born artist and sculptor’s creative process. A spinning wheel on the freestanding piece “Wormhole (Blackamoors Collages #467),” 2021, allows viewers to participate in the exhibit in a tactile way.
“Weightless” also explores themes of subversion and overcoming oppression, “Even within subjugation, there are ways to take power,” Davis says. Chains hanging slack below a piece attached to the gallery ceiling, “To the Moon (Blackamoors Collages #470),” 2021, punctuate breaking free from slavery and oppression on every level.
Weightless is a much-needed reminder to those struggling all over the world right now: The solution to a problem is often encoded and embedded into the DNA of that problem. An obstacle and a way forward can be one and the same, even alongside grief, struggle, strife.
Keenly attuned to how feeling excluded can compromise the ability to enjoy art, the Louisiana native wants unease to be a nonfactor when it comes to his creations. “I like to democratize the work for the viewer and create art that doesn’t exclude. It’s important for me that people who wouldn’t normally feel welcome in traditional gallery spaces feel comfortable now, to look at and talk about the work, and open up conversations they wouldn’t normally be grappling with.”
African masks affixed to rocket ships are mesmerizing in both their individual design and pairing. Davis brings ancestors forward into the present, then sends them into space to stand (float?) flesh shoulder to dust shoulder with descendants. This beautiful portrayal depicts a kind of emotional time/astral travel, generations over centuries reuniting to collectively rejoice in a freedom and dreams come true that not all of them had the opportunity to realize in mortal lifetimes.
They expand on the powerful symbolic gesture of Mae Jemison. The first black astronaut and woman to travel into space, she brought a collection of items with her during her trip outside Earth’s atmosphere including a certificate recognizing the achievements of Chicago public school students in math and science, a banner for Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first black sorority, a Bundu carving from Sierra Leone, and a poster of dancer Judith Jamison from choreographer Alvin Ailey’s iconic solo “Cry,” dedicated to “all Black women everywhere, especially our mothers.”
“The People’s Space Program (Blackamoors Collages #477),” 2021, reveals an Egyptian hieroglyph head emerging from an astronaut’s helmet above Jemison’s orange jumpsuit, employing anachronism as a beautifully unifying force.
Davis fondly speaks of the profound influence of his mother, a quilter, and his father, an electrician, on his work. “I come from a family of quilters and like to incorporate feminine elements into my work. I’m also interested in the narrative power shapes have. Egyptology, shapes as language ideas and concepts are constantly resonating in my head.” Brightly colored triangles and circles studded with stainless steel bolts along with softer shapes, and hieroglyphs, on an obelisk shaped-platform, beckon the viewer, conveying a sense of warmth and welcoming, a kind of hardware patchwork. The effect also beckons the viewer to look closer to perceive a deeper meaning.
A moving and memorable visual integration of work, love, victory and time, “Weightless” is a study in and demonstration of transcending adversity and limitations.