Currently on view at Salon 94, Karon Davis: Beauty Must Suffer, an exquisite exhibition tracing the life and labor of Black dancers, from the first encounter with the barre to the final bow. The exhibition will be on view to December 23, 2023, coinciding with The High Line commission, Curtain Call, on view at 23rd Street.
Karon Davis (Taurus) was born into a large and loving family of four siblings. Her mother and father met while dancing. Once the children arrived her mother, Nancy Bruner, like so many women of her generation, raised the kids and left showbiz behind. Her father, Ben Vereen, would go on to become one of the last song-and-dance men around, a true entertainer. He was at home just as much on a Broadway stage (Bob Fosse’s Pippin) as he was in one of the most galvanizing television events of the 1970s—he played Chicken George in Alex Haley’s Roots.
Karon would go onto study ballet and modern dance at Spelman College. She made her way out to Los Angeles and went to film school. She experimented with making movies. She researched the Black cowboys of Oklahoma. She hunted down the legacy of Black Hollywood in West Adams. She met the artist Noah Davis. They married in a wedding chapel in Miami during Art Basel. They had a baby named Moses. They lived, for a time, in a run of four storefronts in Los Angeles that, once renovated, would ultimately become the legendary Underground Museum. In the wake of her husband’s passing, she turned to art fully and completely. Her métier is sculpture: cast figures made by wrapping human beings—friends, children, family members—in bandages soaked with dazzling-white plaster of Paris.
Davis’s work straddles the logic of Hollywood cinema and Broadway. Broadway is all about the proscenium stage and the red velvet seats that hold the audience. Broadway knows that the performers must fill the entire theater with energy. To sing and dance on Broadway is to defy subtlety. Gestures are grand, emotions are profound, life is dramatic. You know the drill: the show must go on. We see residues of this in Davis’s tableaux. Her figures carve out the space around them. They behave as if they have all stopped moving on cue, to the beat, everything simultaneously coming alive and freezing. Then there’s the glamour of the silver screen and the truthy black and white of the documentary. If the gestures of Davis’s sculptures remind us of Broadway, the ballet, and theater, then the sculptures’ glass eyes—which catch and refract the sharp white light of the art gallery, hinting at emotions that run below the epidermis, below the threshold of speech—evoke cinema. If Broadway is governed by gesture, then cinema conveys its magic through the regimes of the glance, the look, the gaze. In the movies all of that looking and watching is in the service of narrative. Davis’s tableaux play with these different modalities of performance and the toll it takes on the body.
Her work’s emotional range is capacious. What remains constant is the bright white of her materials, which is counterintuitive in the extreme as the bodies she casts are invariably Black. The white is riding slipstream on the long history of classical sculpture stripped of its color and ornamentation. When color appears in Davis’s work it is offered as a readymade—the color of the costume, the blood red of a bouquet of roses. These imported colors tend to make the whiteness of the figures even more dazzling. And this “extra” whiteness acts as such a powerful reminder of the classical sculpture of the Greco-Roman period, artworks foundational to our conception of beauty in the West—although by now we know that these sculptures were once highly decorated and painted. The passage of time stripped them of their color, and it turns out we love this modern whitewashing. She uses white to eliminate the details, which allows her to revel in the emotional resonance of the gesture. Instead of getting hung up on color, Karon’s work stages gesture as both ineffable and performative.
In this new exhibition, Davis has turned to ballet, an art form in which the conformity to Western (read: white) beauty standards is unflinching. To be long, lithe, and perfect, you must endlessly repeat exercises at a barre in front of a mirror. You work your body until it hurts. You break your body. You hide all the pain in the name of beauty. Davis’s mother, a former dancer herself, used to say, “beauty must suffer.” In this installation, Davis’s figures show us the price of the suffering. Her sculpted bodies have never been whole or seamless. They have never been protected by a layer of muscle, fat, and skin. Instead, her bodies are all broken forms, carapaces underneath which we can sometimes see the steel armatures that gird their delicacy. These splits or cuts in the body are a trace of the process of live casting; they show us the seams where an actual body once was. This newest body of work, Beauty Must Suffer, shows us how beauty and joy and pain and brokenness are forever entangled. And those glass eyes stay open through it all, for that is both the task and privilege of gracing this earth in this utterly transitory and glorious form.
– Helen Molesworth
In addition, Karen Davis: Beauty Must Suffer will coincide with The High Line Commission, Curtain Call. Curtain Call is a larger-than-life bronze portrait of a ballerina taking her final bow after a performance. The work is inspired by Davis’s childhood, growing up on stage, behind the scenes of dance and theater performances, and seeing the incredible labor, sweat, and perseverance that go into creating a perfect performance for the stage. Davis’s ballerina holds a bouquet of flowers that spills over toward the viewer. The work is part of a large and ongoing series of dancers Davis is working on called Beauty Must Suffer, at once a memory and an homage to her parents and sister, all of whom were professional dancers. The statue will be placed on the Prairie at 23rd Street, turning the architectural design of the High Line itself into a stage. The sculpture will be on view from October, 2023 to September, 2024 on the High Line at 23rd Street.