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An Artist Who Draws With Language

Eagle Rock's Curve Line Space features the art of Oxy grad Kenturah Davis, on a quest to blur the line between figure, speech and understanding.

For a long time now—since at least the 1970s—contemporary art in America has undergone an unremarkable change. To quote one of Newsweek magazine’s longest-running art critics, Peter Plagens, contemporary art has “lost its grip on something very valuable and reached, instead, for something rather common and vulgar.”

A visit to any number of museums and galleries in Los Angeles—from the Hammer on the Westside to MOCA downtown—will reveal a contemporary art landscape littered with the most bizarre examples of installation art and assorted projects eerily reminiscent of elementary school art whose fan base rarely extends beyond the parents who so often help produce it.

In this arguably shallow and unartistic environment, it’s uplifting and inspiring to come across a show that rises to the level of contemporary art that is not only aesthetically appealing and complex without being overly intellectual but also readily accessible and—ultimately—meaningful. 

Such is a show that opened last Saturday at the Curve Line Space art gallery on Colorado Boulevard. A participant in NELA’s Second Saturday Art Walk on November 12, the show features a set of new drawings, titled “euphemisms,” by the artist and alumna Kenturah Davis. The drawings are the latest example of the Highland Park-based artist’s practice of what she calls “drawing with language.”

Davis draws by writing a particular text in repetition—either by hand or with the use of rubber-stamp letters. The result: Images literally develop through layer after layer of words, making tangible the ideas and experiences underlying language.

Clearly the most dramatic example of Davis’s euphemistic wordplay is right there in her exhibition's centerpiece, directly facing the gallery's entrance: A large-scale wall drawing of Troy Davis, a Georgia death row inmate who was executed on September 21 amid much political and judicial controversy.

Titled “Terminated With Extreme Prejudice,” the nearly 14-feet wide drawing is the artist's first large-scale undertaking—a work-in-progress that alludes to an expression used in military and covert operations as a euphemism for execution. (The phrase was first popularized in the film Apocalypse Now.)

Toward the end of the show, Davis will black out the entire drawing with paint, effectively reducing the work to a relic that will come to symbolize not just the “darkness” that follows any execution—at least from the point of view the person executed, if not from the humanistic viewpoint—but arguably the whole dialectic of race relations in America.

Davis’s show will continue till the end of 2011. In the following Q&A with Patch columnist Alison Gee, Davis talks about her art, her formative years at Occidental College and her hopes for her career:

Patch: What is it about Eagle Rock that inspires you and your work?

Kenturah Davis: I feel a great sense of nostalgia about Eagle Rock, having graduated from Occidental College in 2002. I am definitely inspired by the people I've met and owe a great deal of my growth as a person and artist to my experience there. In the nearly 10 years since I've graduated, it has been wonderful to remain a part of that community.

What’s your favorite memory of being a student at Occidental? Your worst? What is the one thing you will always take from your Oxy education?

My favorite memory has to be participating in the month-long Multicultural Summer Institute that provided an intensive academic and cultural program to a small group of incoming freshmen just before matriculation. It prepared me for college life and the rigorous academic program that lay ahead. I also met some of my closest friends there.

My worst memory was an art assignment gone wrong: In my senior year, I decided to do a sort of temporary installation for my sculpture class. I used a clear acrylic varnish to paint a poem across the main courtyard that could be read from the second floor of the dining hall. Well, it wasn't so temporary. It took two nights of scrubbing and several days of bright sunshine before it finally faded away.

It is hard to name one thing I took away from my Oxy education—so I would say it is the intersection of three experiences that have contributed greatly to how I think and work now. The first was experimentation with materials and techniques in Professor Linda Lyke's printmaking classes. The second: examining the process of constructing identity in Professor Elizabeth Chin's cultural anthropology classes. And finally, art critique in Professor Linda Besemer's painting classes. I had many phenomenal professors at Oxy, but these three stand out for me in terms of having direct influence on how I work today.

Your work is beautiful and textured. Tell us a little more about your concepts. What does the juxtaposition of words on portraits mean to you? What do you think this montage communicates on a visceral level to viewers?

I have always been interested in portraiture. I was painting [portraits] in a really graphic, brightly colored manner for a while, but introduced the text as a way to get past the superficiality. I grew up with the scripture, ‘Death and life are in the power of the tongue and those who love it shall it eats fruit,’ meaning that the words we speak can operate as a catalyst for life experiences.

This concept launched my ongoing examination of the philosophy of language and the construction of identity. By drawing with language I am able to embed meaning into the image in a way that runs parallel to how we use language to perceive ourselves and the world around us. 

I am also interested in what physically happens between the time you see the portrait from a distance to the moment that you are only inches away. Far away, the portraits read as semi-photographic renderings, but up close it breaks apart into letters and words that are simply layered on top of each other. Ultimately, I want viewers to have a sense of discovery as they move within close proximity of the drawings to unpack the meaning of the work.

How did you choose your portrait subjects—and who are they? How did they respond to your work at your show’s opening?

Starting with the idea that I wanted to explore the ways we negotiate our identities and perceive reality through euphemisms, I initially approached individuals who I have been following on Twitter, gravitating toward people who exhibit interesting wordplay in short snippets. I later branched out to include a few close friends as well. Some of the subjects live outside California and have not seen the drawings in person, but they all seemed pretty pleased and humored by the finished drawing.

What were some of the euphemisms you used, and how did you come up with them? Any funny stories about this process?

It was mostly a collaborative process to come up with a euphemism that represented an aspect of the subject's personality. It was interesting to consider the endless ways that we can use this kind of rhetorical device. By the end, I was quite pleased with the range of expression we achieved—from the phrase, ‘Tongue firmly planted in cheek,’ describing a sharp-witted tweeter, to ‘Fluffy,’ describing a gorgeous, full-figured friend of mine.

Who are some of the people who collect your work?

I had a unique opportunity to create a drawing of Ray Charles for a documentary that debuted last year on the Biography Channel. That exposed my work to people across the country who started collecting my work and commissioning portraits. I also have a separate body of textile-based work as a part of Andrea Zittel's Smockshop project, which has been acquired and exhibited in the U.S., Europe and Australia.

What is your greatest hope for your career as an artist?

In addition to maintaining my own art practice, I have had the unique opportunity and privilege to watch major artists at work as the director at Gemini G.E.L., the print atelier in Los Angeles. My hope is to someday get to the level of experimentation and collaboration that is shared by many of Gemini's artists. I also realize that I quite enjoy working on a large scale, so I am very interested in doing mural-size projects.

euphemisms, New Drawings by Kenturah Davis, Curve Line Space, 1577 Colorado Blvd. (323) 478-9874.

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