featuresStudio visits
Wednesday, January 27th, 2016

Politics on the Canvas, Online, Now: A Studio Visit with Jeremy Okai Davis


We don’t talk much about “art” when I see Jeremy Davis. We end up goofing around or talking about songs, movies, just about anything else. Sitting down with him in his Portland studio, I learned more about his philosophy and process than I ever would have otherwise. Davis has most recently shown his art at the Lonnie B. Harris Black Cultural Center at Oregon State University, with permanent installations of his work there, as well as The Studio Museum in Harlem’s “Speaking of People: Ebony, Jet and Contemporary Art.” During this studio visit, Davis and I got to talking about his most recent paintings and a few of his affinities found on Tumblr.

I walked in to see a massive painting he’d been working on. The painting brings together imagery inspired by the cover of We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite; an Oregon State University student protest; portraits of John Coltrane, Max Roach, and Charles Mingus; a quotation from Ralph Abernathy; and a large black gestural stroke on an abstract background of yellow and orange hues. At eight-by-six feet, this commissioned piece goes along with 25 smaller portraits of black leaders for the Lonnie B. Harris Black Cultural Center at OSU.

Jeremy Okai Davis, Predicting a Movement, 2015. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.
Jeremy Okai Davis, Predicting a Movement, 2015. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

PAUL MAZIAR: What are you working on?

JEREMY OKAI DAVIS: These 25 portraits lining the wall and this painting that’s been kind of morphing over the past few weeks. I’m trying to keep things loose.

I was talking to a friend who was here earlier and was telling him I want to do a really gestural black stroke across the painting. It’s funny because I’m kind of over-thinking it, when the idea of gestural is to just do it. I think I need to be in the right mindset to be that free and loose. It’s kind of intimidating. Usually it happens if I’m working on something else. If I’m doing something, I’ll look over there and think, Now, it’s time.

Do you think that gesture has anything to do with the sounds you hear from the Roach album? It has a lot of moments…

Punchy moments. Maybe that’s what it’s gonna take. Like when Abbey Lincoln screams. Maybe it takes getting invested in those tracks to make me do something crazy. Like a moment. The painting is called Predicting a Movement.

You’re waiting for the moment to make that brush stroke… you want to get around doing it a certain way.

I want to make an actual gesture. It’s difficult, though. I want it to be gestural, but to tell yourself to be loose and free, you’re putting yourself in this box. And for me that mark is such an important part of the piece. I want it to be free, but it’s a big part of the piece so it has to be right, strange.

Jeremy Okai Davis. Photograph by Paul Armstrong, 2008.
Jeremy Okai Davis. Photograph by Paul Armstrong, 2008.

Where are these images from?

The OSU archive. In 1969, the Black Student Union had staged a walk-out, when Fred Milton, an OSU football player, was asked to shave his beard; he didn’t want to, and the coach threatened to kick him off the team. They did a lot of things like this, but this image is one I was really drawn to. The image of union and movement.

Is that what accounts for the drips and splatters in your figurative paintings?

I think so. For me the drips and that kind of thing make it feel more like a painting. When you get in close and tight on them, taking little squares out to look at, they’re a bunch of little abstract paintings. That’s how I come at it, instead of smoothing out everything.

When I go to galleries and museums, I enjoy myself more when I move around the paintings, seeing how the work shifts. The richness and buildup of the paint are super important to me. I get disappointed sometimes when I see something online that I really love, and I go to see the piece in person at an art show — and it’s exactly like it was on the Internet! Like a flat jpeg with a smooth surface, etc. — no improvisation. I think you hope for a new experience.

There’s this other element to your paintings that, to me, is shared with jazz, experimental music and poetry — where you return to it and see something new. Like you’ve never encountered it before.

I’m just now starting to get into jazz and investigating it, listening to Money Jungle (1963) a bunch; I’m getting so much out of it. Every listen feels different, depending on your mood. That’s the amazing thing about jazz: it’s timeless and location-less.

I see a lot of movement in Predicting a Movement. Has this album been a recent influence?

I don’t think one song in particular, but yeah, jazz in general has been.

I was going to bring up affinities. Your Tumblr has a lot of good stuff on it. Some of it seems to have a timelessness about it. Do you think much about tradition or trends?

No. I don’t think about that at all. Well, I do. I think about them and try to avoid them.

You’ve got a lot of powerful imagery here. How about the museum guard photograph, where the man is standing there looking at a painting?

That was a film shot at the Portland Art Museum. My friend Nate and I were just walking around and we saw him standing there looking at that painting for a really long time. It’s a really great painting: just the sea, that’s all it is. It’s one of those things you can just get totally lost in; the water starts moving if you look at it long enough.

Imagine how many times he’s seen that painting!

Maybe he does that every day; maybe getting lost in that painting is his break.

Portraits by Jeremy Okai Davis.
Portraits by Jeremy Okai Davis.

Vince Staples’ Señorita (2015) video is amazing. At the end where he opens up his coat and it’s just a black hole. That part is insane!

That is a crazy video. I’m super inspired by a lot of what’s happening in hip hop right now. There was a long period of time where musicians weren’t considering their audience, and the music videos weren’t considerate of the audience either. It seems like right now, more than the last 15-20 years, the artists are really thinking of the audience and this video is just another example of that.

Everything in that piece, considering the cultural climate right now, is really important. I think I posted two in a row, that one and Close Your Eyes and Count to Fuck (2014) by Run the Jewels. They share similarities. The Vince Staples video is like a zoo, basically, where people are just watching the chaos, like all the news reports right now. And with the Run The Jewels song, with Zach de la Rocha, the scenario is a young black man and a middle-aged cop. They’re just wrestling, moving through the streets; it’s a choreographed fight. They end up in a house pouring milk all over each other and end up totally exhausted at the end. It’s supposed to show a dance that cultures have been having for years and years and how we’re trained to fight, trained to be at odds.

It seems like you’ve always had cultural references in your paintings.

Definitely. Whether it’s just pop culture, celebrity news, or the real news that people want to pay attention to. I pay attention to it all. It makes its way into my work, always. But it’s never in your face. I’ve always tried to make sure my paintings aren’t grandstanding. I want people to see it, think about it, go home and let it stick. They hear a news report or they’re listening to jazz and might think of this painting. I just want these little moments in time with my paintings to kind of bubble up.

What’s the idea behind the series of smaller portraits?

I wanted to find inspiring African-Americans from history. Pictures of them, not as kids, but young, before they were legendary. The reason being is that I wanted them to be relatable to the kids who’ll see them. To show possibility: they were bright-eyed kids just like you. So it’s these and then the Lonnie B. Harris portrait with the rest alongside him.

What’s next?

My mom’s from Liberia and I am just now realizing I don’t know a lot about her. I want to do a body of work that’ll be an investigation of Liberia and her in some way, relating to the disconnect that I have from my mom and Africa. A charting of my education of where she came from in my paintings. I have images in my head of what it’ll be, but I’m not sure yet.

I’ve always tried to temper my excitement, but it’s hard for me to think about this work being at OSU for all time and not get stoked. This stuff is going to be permanently installed. As an artist, that’s kind of my goal, to inspire for all time. I look at someone like David Hockney, and a lot of these artists, the pieces they made in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I still call back those for inspiration. To think that the possibility is out there that some kid in 2070 might stumble into the Cultural Center and see my paintings and decide to be a painter, is pretty amazing. I think that’s the kind of the goal for me. It keeps the ball rolling, you know?

Are all children artists?

I think so. Everybody has a creative side. I think everybody can exercise that if they choose to. Some people don’t have the desire to exercise it, they have other things that are important to them, which is fine.

It takes a certain person to let it take over. It’s a fun thing to do, but to let art take over your life is kind of scary. To let it be the thing that you do can be kind of frightening. I think everybody isn’t a genius, but everyone has the capacity to be a genius at their chosen vocation.

Detail of portraits by Jeremy Okai Davis.
Detail of portraits by Jeremy Okai Davis.