Isaiah Davis

I work primarily in video and sculpture, combining these two mediums in installations that create immersive experiences, frequently examining codes of masculinity and systems of exclusion, my treatment of these themes seeking to excavate the fugitive and fertile grounds formed by alienation and contradiction.

The themes of my work can be understood through the lens of care and the lack of it under systems of exclusion related to experiences of outsiderism and the realities of stratification (according to class, race, gender, and sexual orientation). My solo show at Participant Gallery in New York (a nonprofit institution which centers video and performance) was titled I HAVE NO MOUTH AND I MUST SCREAM (2021), taking its name from a 1967 sci-fi short story by Harlan Ellison which was subsequently remade as a video game. The premise is a small group who is tortured for eternity by a sadistic supercomputer. And there were implied parallels between this group and the youth gangs which emerged in the Bronx during the 1960s and 70s like the Savage Nomads, their nihilism born out of extreme disenfranchisement. I grew up in the Bronx, and the way marginalization continues to play out, as well as the specific nuances of homo-socialiality and fraternity as it exists in street gangs, is a subject of my practice. My video works in that show included my cousins recounting their experiences growing up, primarily episodes dealing with violence that related to the socially-constructed pursuit of manhood. I connected these Bronx histories from the mid-20th century to the present with codes and performances of masculinity in other fraternal organizations including boy bands and BLUF leather communities.

My interest in leather is another source of inspiration in my work. I have an archive of leather garments, which span police, military, fetish, workwear, and motorcycle leather, and I’m interested in the craftsmanship and communities related to these garments, as well as leather’s conceptual relationship to vulnerability, nonconformity, and contradiction (for example, leather is associated with both hetero and homo machismo,  authority and counterculture, fascism and punk). I’m very attracted to the materiality of leather, its strength, flexibility, and endurance, as well as the way it can carry history through wear and patina. I’ve studied closely the semiotics of leather garments, what’s communicated in a certain pattern of snaps or the placement of a zipper. I bring this body of knowledge to my art practice, in sculptures that use leather as a material, but also as a foundation for examining social constructions and slippages around identification.

Art-making is the language that I speak most intuitively, and for me, making art is necessary. I come from a working-class family, my mother’s Nigerian and my father is Black American. I’ve gravitated toward materials like leather, metal, and reclaimed wood, deploying their generative raw potential to unearth agents of trauma, violence, inequity, and corruption. Grief is one of the intuitive emotional spaces from which I make work. At times in my practice, I’m excavating and building on minor histories of cultural production defined by conditions of marginalization, necessity, and lack. Flags, banners, symbology, militarism, drag, exploitation films, and dance have all been tools for my examinations of fraternity, nihilism, and fetish. Sculpture gives form to my most abstract ideas while I’m drawn to the moving image for its narrative potential. I will continue developing a dialogue between sculpture and video through environmental installations that choreograph the audience in space. I will further experiment with scale and modularity to interrogate immersion, compartmentalization, and the relationship between the part and the whole. I’m interested in the fugitive status of dark media, which evades monetization, and staging installations that underscore a viewer’s complicity, participation, and accountability.

I have developed a strong formal language in video based around rhythmic, dense, and layered editing. Quick-paced cuts juxtaposing different frames is a strategy to embody the dialectical method, stripping down formal conventions and provoking a radical re-examination of a viewer’s assumption of the material. There’s a formal sensibility that’s shared in this approach to video and my approach to sculpture, favoring dense materiality, and often applying processes of erosion, like for example torching the reclaimed wood in Suicide House Couch, or distressing the leather in Savage Nomads. I’ve been incorporating dance, sound, and choreography in my recent video works. I collaborated on a video with Kembra Pfahler structured around embodied actions with an aural signature, for example the action and noise of zipping up boots. I frequently return to isolation, repetition, and deconstruction in these video works. For the past year I was working as a video editor and performance archivist at Brooklyn Academy of Music, and I’ve been inspired by the experimental dance performances I archived, including works by Alvin Ailey and Pina Bausch, as well as emerging choreographers.

My practice continues a tradition of New York artists who engage a narrative of the city, from William Pope L. to Martin Scorcese. At the same time, my work furthers the Postmodern project of recasting and refracting the American mythos, influenced by Kenneth Anger and Paul Pfeiffer. As well, I’m building on a language of nuance and opacity in contemporary American sculpture, inspired by artists like Robert Gober, Richard Serra, David Hammons, and Lutz Bacher. Foundational to my practice is the idea that art needs nuance and that the language of sculpture is able to contain multitudes and contradictions, and that something can be didactic and opaque at the same time.