Lisa Corinne Davis: Index

February 6-May 8, 2001



Lisa Corinne Davis: Index
Essay by Franklin Sirmans


From the beginning of her career Lisa Corinne Davis has probed the complexities of race, culture, and history in mixed media works that might best be described as visual reflections. Existing somewhere between collage, painting and drawing, the works provide a metaphorical reservoir in which form and content merge and meaning seems embedded in the materials themselves. At issue are the assumptions we make on the basis of ethnicity and race and the difficulty of seeing the individual apart from the group. Davis' work provides an inquiry into the nature of how others know us.

Beginning with the self-portraits of the Heritage series (1986-94) that explore a personal identity, Davis' work has evolved from the autobiographical to an examination of the individual in the context of collective society. In the Heritage series Davis' features are layered with objects and with images, primarily of women, signifying a distinct culture—Alice in Wonderland, African sculpture, Renaissance paintings. These provide cultural icons and literary and art historical personae, to be referenced and explored in relation to the self. Their open-ended presentation encourages the viewer to work out the relationship between the two. Graphite veils the ink portraits. Found materials, such as bones, black-eyed peas and hair, reinforce the visual imagery and convey a metaphoric content. In this series materials and imagery are constructed layer upon layer, like archeological strata, through which the viewer delves. It is a methodology that continues to evolve in Davis' work. In an artist statement from this period in which Davis describes herself as an African-American woman of mixed heritage, she questions the "labels and fictions" that posit "the notion of cultural purity" as an "artificial simplicity." Given the geographic mobility of contemporary society and, for that matter, the migrations that have always been a part of human history, it is hard to argue that culture and race are fixed entities. In the Heritage works, Davis asserts the primacy of the individual and explores identity as an intricate fusion of cultural, historical, and biographical circumstances.

Moving from the autobiographical to a consideration of the broader issues of stereotyping and labeling with Essential Traits (1995-1998), Davis began to develop a new visual vocabulary of symbols and structure. In this series an underlying grid provides the organizational principle for work, which is an increasingly complex weave of ideas, materials, and imagery. Collage is the basic technique, and paper is the primary material—including the pages of books, maps, tracing paper, hand-made Abacca paper, papier maché, Xerox paper, and vellum. In Essential Traits No. 7, Davis uses the pages of an old American history text, placed end to end in a vertical scroll-like format. The pages are stained with ink and mounted on canvas. In this work Davis edits both text and image. With black ink and white colored pencil, she adds portraits of those omitted from history and scratches out and replaces passages of this outdated Eurocentric text that once provided a historical canon. The subtle and understated visual form of this work tempers a more radical intent.

Portraits of individual people, which Davis finds in an array of newspapers including the foreign press, are built up to create a mass in which both the group and the individual are visible (as in Essential Traits #8). In some works these photo-based images are traced and translated into line drawings conveying a distinct individual; in others they become cutout as a silhouette, a negative space, an anonymous every man or empty vessel on which to project ideas about the group. They are uniform—cut from templates—democratized and made equal. The stories of their daily lives surround them on the pages of newspapers.


Materials are mined for their suggestive references—vellum becomes a metaphor for skin, papier maché pulp made from foreign language newspapers alludes to ethnic diversity, and collaged maps refer to the origins and migrations of people throughout the world. Davis' palette, mostly warm earth tones—terracottas, ochres, and umbers—evoke variations of skin color. As physical objects, these large, mixed media works often hang like tapestries with rich textural surfaces. The translucence of the vellum, tracing paper and acrylic washes, as well as the penetrated, negative spaces, invite the viewer to dig through the layers to content below.

In more recent works, the Indirection and Index series, Davis further codifies the structure of information, pushing the work to greater abstraction both of imagery and of ideas. She works with the logic of a poet rather than demographer, setting up categories, collecting data, coding information, and creating pseudo graphs and charts in a highly personal idiom. Maps are sometimes overlaid with topographical indications or radiating latitude and longitude lines that also read as targets. Lines plot the course of rivers, railroad tracks, and roads. Parts of the world are juxtaposed incongruously, suggesting a psychological affinity rather than a literal position. Bright fluorescent colors, used along with more naturalistic skin tones, still reference "skin" by making it clear that it is an arbitrary system from which one draws no real information about the individual. Sections of the work are organized by color and seem to track the groups. Works, such as Index #5, which rely in large part on paint, seem to derive much of their structure and design from collage technique.

Davis focuses in many of the works on those aspects of the individual that might identify the person as part of a group—skin color, language, and geographic origin. In Index #4, she uses fingerprints, a highly individual physical characteristic, yet one that is impossible to reduce to those categories. In this work, thousands of fingerprints transferred onto small, painted pieces of vellum are pieced together like a quilt. Sections are bracketed in bright fluorescent colors suggesting groupings that alternately read as graphs. In another work, David, Jonathan, Sally, Reiner..., a large-scale installation, hundreds of noses cast from friends are scattered across the gallery wall. Made of handmade paper, the noses are shaped by draping the wet paper over the plastic mold created from the cast. Along the sides, surnames refer to the subject, and lines connect to corresponding noses. In this work the noses, while demonstrating subtle variations, are difficult to identify. In fact it is the names that suggest the most about the individual. In Index #6, pages of novels in foreign languages—French, Polish, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Thai among them—are painted in beige, pinks, magenta, yellows, and browns. Each page has a cut silhouette, suggesting a personal narrative and an individual life. The pages overlap, altering and creating a mix of colors within the outline of the silhouettes. It is an overall pattern in which the individuals, inseparable from the group, are woven into an interconnecting fabric.

This exhibition provides a look at the evolution of the work of Lisa Corinne Davis over the course of sixteen years and through the four major series. It is a window onto the career of an important artist as it unfolds.

—Susan Hoeltzel