Food and Money

Art rendered in paint, teeth and fur—and rooted in a Cleveland life

Henry Adams catalogues the first-ever retrospective of artist Dexter Davis

Dexter Davis spends his days as a guard at the Cleveland Museum of Art, roaming its galleries and protecting prized works, including one of his own.

As a Cleveland-based artist of national significance, Davis is the subject a new catalogue by Henry Adams, the Ruth Coulter Heede Professor of Art History at Case Western Reserve University, that serves as a companion to the artist’s first-ever retrospective.

Spirit, 1998. Color woodcut, etching, and aquatint; 30 x 22 in. The Cleveland Museum of Art
Spirit, 1998. Color woodcut, etching, and aquatint; 30 x 22 in. The Cleveland Museum of Art

“Dexter Davis: A Portrait”—the inaugural show of Kent State University’s new Center for the Visual Arts Gallery—runs Sept. 1-Oct. 7.

In his catalogue of the same name, Adams reconciles the artist’s polite personality—described in the text as “a well-mannered gentleman”—with an artist known for images thick with themes of anxiety and violence and dotted with ghosts, fetuses and outlines of murdered bodies.

The youngest of 10 children, Davis came of age in Hough, a largely black Cleveland neighborhood and the site of riots spurred by racial unrest a half century ago. One of his paintings, Food and Money, recalls the hunger prompting one of his brothers to rob a corner store to feed the family.

“Dexter’s art is very much about what it’s like to grow up as an African-American, in utter poverty and in a tough neighborhood,” said Adams. “His works are also about a cultural inheritance which, despite all kinds of displacements and disruptions over several centuries, still retains an aura of Africa.”

Dexter Davis / Joan Neubecker, as printed in Adams' new catalogue, "Dexter Davis: A Portrait"
Dexter Davis / Joan Neubecker, as printed in Adams’ new catalogue, “Dexter Davis: A Portrait”

Davis constructs his works, seemingly, in a trance—Adams likens him to a shaman—from a menagerie of materials: bones and skin and fur from road kill, feathers and teeth (including his own). Art also became a gateway to what was lost when his family’s house burned down in 1979: his boyhood puppets, toys, photos and family history.

“His work seems to reflect whatever issues he’s working through in the moment,” said Adams. “He’s coming to terms with frightening things about growing up and expressing it in unburdensome ways to his audience.”

In 2012, the Cleveland Museum of Art—where Davis has worked as full-time guard since the early 1990s—purchased and has displayed his work, Black Heads, in the same gallery as pieces by American modern masters such as Jackson Pollack, Andy Warhol and Lee Krasner.

“For some people, the job might become dull, but for Dexter, it provided a place of calm apart from his artistic work, and a chance to commune daily with great works of art,” Adams writes. “He can put his mental energy into his work.”

Black Heads
Black Heads, 2010. Collage, watercolor, found objects; 50 x 38 in. Cleveland Museum of Art

At 90 pages, and featuring dozens of full-color prints, Adams’ catalogue traces the artist’s career through its distinct periods, which tended to reflect his personal searching, tragedies and joys.

“Some retrospectives can show artists painting the same work over and over for 30 years,” said Adams. “With Dexter, his consistency is accompanied by a great deal of growth and transcends time, place and boundaries of culture—like all great art does.”

On Sept. 8, KSU’s Center for the Visual Arts Gallery will host a reception for the show from 5-8 p.m., which is free and open to the public. The exhibition—curated by William Busta and Anderson Turner—and Adams’ book were funded, in part, by the Ohio Arts Council.