It’s not just his numerous depictions of musicians that lets you know Harry L. Davis loves music — the man’s process itself emotes strong rhythm.
Davis, who lives and works in the town of Belville on the North Carolina coast, is self-taught, though not of the “faux folk” school. His paintings currently on display at the YMI Cultural Center include portraits of Africans, likely based on photographs; a fine depiction of Nat Love, an African-American cowboy; and plentiful portraits of musicians.
The paintings of Africans in various tribal garbs are sometimes done in vibrant colors, all with Giotto-like drapery. Davis’ depiction of fabrics is a major element in his work: “The Griot” shows a brown-robed African man with boldly defined facial features, holding a staff and pointing at something in the distance.
As in Davis’ other works, the background is skillfully resolved. “Hausa Warrior” is a very dark-skinned man wearing a monstrous bright-yellow turban and a robe of red and pthalo-green drapery. Again, the rhythm here, as in the other works, defies all reason. Clearly the artist’s passion, it takes precedence over most everything else. Could it be that all the paintings are really about music? (Hint: A table sitting against the gallery’s north wall holds a collection of African percussion instruments.) In “The Pipe Player,” Davis pays homage to contemporary music’s African roots. Soulful eyes peer over a panpipe made of bone or bamboo. The player wears a raffia-like headdress strung with a few beads; the painting is dark in color and mood.
Davis really comes into his own, though, when he paints contemporary musicians, including a small painting of a women’s gospel group in lavender robes which readily magnifies not only their voices but their swaying movements. The artist shows paintings of guitarists, too, but the standout works are “Man With a Horn” I and II. These two skillfully capture the stance and movement of the players, and as in Davis’ other canvases, clothing is centrally featured.
“I” gives us a tall, thin, bald man in a bold yellow suit playing a tenor saxophone. The man’s body is seen in profile — in this case, the classical “S” shape of a medieval saint. Davis manages to avoid garishness in his strong colors, perhaps through the neutral, almost flesh tones he employs in his carefully mottled backgrounds. (This work, as well as its companion piece, uses darker bands from the background to further reinforce the figure’s verticality.) “II”‘s subject is more substantial, but the drapery of his red suit is just as impressively rendered. Also seen in profile, he strains mightily at his trumpet.
The paintings are not presented as a diptych, but it would detract from both were they not viewed side by side.
Strangely alone in the mix of tribesmen and musicians is the Nat Love portrait, but there he is, Deadwood Dick, feet spread, accosting the viewer, ready for any challenge. Davis’ signature rhythms in the clothing are present in the sleeves of the shirt, and in the flowing locks of hair fighting their way from underneath the wide brim of Love’s cowboy hat. @endbullet>X<$>
[Connie Bostic is an Asheville-based artist and writer. Her work is currently showing as part of Road in Sight: Contemporary Art in North Carolina at Duke University.]
Harry L. Davis’ Paintings shows at the YMI Cultural Center (39 S. Market St.) through Saturday, Sept. 24 (Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.). 252-4614.