“Like Like”: Jeremy Okai Davis’ post-digital portraits

Davis's latest paintings show how social media users picture themselves.

Jeremy Okai Davis’ “Like Like,” on view for the rest of the month at Cast Iron Studios, is titled after the banal postmodern act of thumbs-upping a digital image on a social media site—and maybe that’s all there is to it? If that’s what you see, the artist won’t argue. “My choosing of what to paint does come from my liking of these images,” Davis explains of the photos he’s painted from friends’ Facebooks and Instagrams.

Frankly hipsterish subjects mug a range of expressions and gestures with obvious awareness of the camera, but they shrug off prior generations’ “smile and say cheese” poses. This generation of image-crafters clearly prefers to be caught in an act, rather than frozen from some flattering angle. This evolution fascinates Davis, both because people in motion are so graphically dynamic, and because the habit of acting rather than posing has become a hallmark of our visual times and virtual selves.

Pink Cup

“Pink Cup” is a prime example of Davis’s favorite subjects: Young, self-styled, expressive women, captured in a moment of social acting meant for online sharing. They couldn’t look more complicit.

Davis’s 2009 show Shits ‘n’ Giggles and his 2010 works had a similar tone to “Like Like,” featuring mostly young, boldly-dressed-and-accessorized-subjects captured in moments of expressive action. In 2011, Davis changed his focus to bygone child sitcom stars. 2012 brought his most conceptual work to date: recreating 1970’s African-American pomade ads, but superimposing visual edits with heavy philosophical intention: some subjects were reduced to pixels to indicate that population’s lack of public recognition, while light-skinned subjects got Elizabethan neck-ruffs as a sinister symbol of their shade-stratified status. Davis’s 2013 paintings again crib from 70’s and 80’s retro advertising and celebrity images, but now with primarily white subjects, board game poses, and uneasy self-help-book titles. Not what they seem, these pieces have been Davis’s way of processing a surreal personal experience: being interrogated by police after a recent stay in a hotel coincided with another guest’s murder.

In "Ruffnecks," Davis bestows his light-skinned 70's subjects with a symbol of shade-stratified status.

In “Ruffnecks,” Davis bestowed his light-skinned 70’s model subjects with a symbol of shade-stratified status.

Davis’s body of work viewed as a whole invites an important question: where does he see himself—among White hipsters, or Black history? “I don’t,” he admits. Where many portraitists use their paintings of others as a secret vehicle for self-revelation, Davis instead attempts to stay out of the way. Once, when specifically asked to paint a self-portrait, he submitted only his torso in a polo shirt, wearing a button reading “URYIMHERE [you are why I’m here].” Yet even through his near-militant selflessness, Davis’s work highlights a distinctive style. Here are a few defining motifs to look for in Like Like.

Solid Backgrounds with isolated, almost floating subjects.

In “Giggles,” Davis used textured color fields and geometric shapes to subdivide the canvas and make its pattern a secondary subject. “Like” backgrounds, however, are solids with a mere hint of atmosphere, allowing subjects to float to the foreground and be sole occupants of the space.

Bold textile patterns, bright colors.

Davis has a mixed reaction to the observation that his subjects seem like hipsters. On one hand, the designation seems fitting and inevitable, and matches up with modern dictionary defs. On the other, it can seem pejorative, or pin his work too tightly in its era. Spawned by beatniks and later appropriated by Black bohemianism (“You down with Digable Planets, yous a hipster. Shit.” ~1993) the term now seems to favor those for whom style and lifestyle (too?) tightly intertwine. Do or don’t call Davis’s subjects “hipsters,” but they’re undeniably stylin’, wearing a lot of bold prints and large accessories that Davis enjoys the painterly challenge of re-creating. Through the rigors of their self-design, hipsters make themselves preeminently paintable. Shit.

Painterly decisions, drips.

The images in “Like” tend to taper into drips toward their base, both as an homage to Warhol’s works, and as a concession to the medium of paint—as Keith Haring aldvocated, “letting…materials have a kind of power for themselves.” Daub pointillism is also a favorite for Davis, forcing the viewer’s eye to make the final assembly of only-nearly-smooth forms.

Tough girls.

Davis favors female subjects over male, and confrontational character poses over “beauty shots.” In contrast to his 60’s beatnik influences, Davis belongs to a school of artists (his former housemates include rockabilly superstar Sallie Ford and riot grrl comedian Rebecca Waits) who treats women as characters rather than objects. This perspective wouldn’t be worthy of mention if it weren’t still rare in the realm of portraiture.

Thumbs-up and gun-slinging.

Those who’ve taken or seen photos of folks from various countries may notice the following: Americans tend to give a thumbs-up or shoot a “finger-gun,” while people from elsewhere more habitually give the “V” that signifies “victory” or “peace.” Guns and thumbs, therefore, mark Davis’s subjects as distinctly American, with the social predispositions that that identity implies.

Davis’s initial attraction to pointing gestures was subconscious; as a graphic designer, he automatically favors images that direct gaze motion. However, as the hand-gesture motif has begun to recur in his work, he’s highlighted it, and sometimes even isolated it from the rest of the canvas. In one image, an “actual” gun (though a toy) is brandished with exactly the same social performance attitude that elsewhere accompanies the “finger-gun.” Elsewhere, “thumbs up” hands float free of their subjects for added emphasis.

“It can seem like a cop-out to not state the meaning of your work, but I really do want people to experience it for themselves,” says Davis. “I’m happy just generating discussion.” Well, shoot. Discuss.

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A. L. Adams also writes monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine.
Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch  | The Portland Mercury

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