Amid his pensive, engrossing paintings now at Roberts & Tilton, Noah Davis has planted something of a joke: a tight, U-shaped mini-exhibition space formed by temporary walls covered in scuffed gray fabric.
Three small oil paintings hang within but are impossible to see well. "Stacked Cubicles/My Last Art Fair" offers an uncharacteristic moment of levity from Davis, a knowing poke at the crowded and often claustrophobic conditions of art fairs, a self-deprecating snicker at his allotted sliver of visibility.
A more barbed or at least complex message may be at play in the piece, but Davis prefers not to spell things out. His paintings are deeply informed by film, literature, myth, art history (Kitaj, Balthus, Doig and many more) and African American culture, but the work exerts its haunting power by remaining elusive, private, withholding contexts that might position a scene in a comprehensive narrative.
To experience Davis's work is not, however, to feel deprived. His images are visually rich and reward the prolonged explore. One painting on an inkjet print shows a group of neighborhood kids, one of them inexplicably hovering over the rest, arms outstretched, gazing at us with vaguely defined features, as if proposing the viability of ascension. Another utterly compelling painting, on canvas, features a seemingly ordinary man, briefcase in hand, in a profound moment of urban isolation. Walls of mauve, russet and smoke rise around him.