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Lisa Davis

Lisa Corinne Davis: interview


Lisa Corinne Davis talks to Lilly Wei about her multilayered, map-like paintings, the complex relationship between race, culture and history, and her hope that her work will challenge preconceived notions of identity.

Lisa Corinne Davis is a New York-based artist best known for paintings and works on paper that resemble multilayered maps with encoded narratives. Her “inventive geography” prompts a wide range of interpretations, its open-endedness a stance she actively cultivates. Her work derives from autobiographical sources but also refers to social and cultural issues, both historical and contemporary. The resultant mix of eclectic form and content is surprising as well as stimulating. Davis, who is African American, says her practice explores the complex relationship between “race, culture and history” and, with it, ideas about classification and contingency, the rational and irrational, chaos and order.

Her painting has become increasingly responsive to the processes of paint and its materiality, the colours richer and more nuanced, her depicted “environments” not quite natural, but also not digital. Viewers have difficulty in determining whether Davis’s constructions are handmade or not, real or fictive spaces, figurative or abstract, microcosm or macrocosm. Davis, who has taught at Yale University School of Art and is currently a professor at Hunter College, the City University of New York, has exhibited regularly since the 80s, mostly in the US, her works found in many public and private collections. Her latest exhibition is at Galerie Gris in Hudson, New York.

Davis talked to Lilly Wei about her recent work and the personal reflections that have shaped it.

Lilly Wei: Do you think it’s true that African-American artists have usually been expected to deal with race in their works instead of their individual identity and passions?

Lisa Corinne Davis: It is certainly something I have thought about. I feel that I’ve always been implicated in whatever people around me understood African-American culture to be. I wasn’t trying to make a statement about being black, or about race relations. It was more a personal search to figure out what the importance of race was and what constituted notions of race for me. When asked, when I said that I was African American, I saw that a whole set of assumptions about my identity and history came with my response – even if none of it applied to me. It made me think about the fluidity of culture and one’s location within it as an individual. Mapping was a metaphor for that.

In my earlier works, I often used things such as art-historical artefacts that were clearly culturally oriented. It was a desire for security because it made things simple, not because it had anything to do with my background. I realised that people who asked me about my race brought their own perspectives, biases and knowledge with them, and these attitudes were integral to the relationship between us. I think when people look at abstract painting, the approach is parallel; a set of assumptions determine what they see or don’t see, what they want to see and don’t want to see, whether what they see is rational or crazy. I play with the unfixed nature of what one brings to a painting and how that shifts over time, changing how you connect to it.

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