I first saw work by artist Bruce Davenport, Jr. in 2008, when his diagram-like illustrations of marching bands had a strong, inexplicable quality to them. Done in colored markers, they were geometric depictions that focused on the bands’ formations in the street, and nothing differentiated one from another more than the colors of the uniforms, which were appropriate for New Orleans high school bands past and present. There was a strong folk art element in his work as the questions the work posed were more about him than the work itself. Why bands? Why such pattern-oriented work? What was he doing?
New work by Davenport is included in Prospect.2, and his obsession hasn’t changed. Two walls of NOMA‘s Great Hall present large depictions of New Orleans marching bands parading, often turning around a crowded neutral ground and marching back the other way. The additional elements of the crowd and the street give the pieces a slightly abstract quality as they’re defined by an interplay of large shapes – wide, pale curves bounded by bold, colorful strips. The marching bands are patterns on the pale parts when the pieces are viewed from a distance, and the roiling cluster of people on the neutral grounds and sidewalk create a restless energy that contrasts with the static, patterned bands.
Davenport has also made his work more overtly personal and political. There are R.I.P.s written on the works for marching band leaders who’ve died, along with other people who clearly mean something to him. One Mardi Gras float has an R.I.P. for the artist Jeff Cook, who died in 2009. Flat surfaces such as the sides of floats, the roofs of bus shelters and police barricades are crowded with text, most declaring the public agencies and actors who have let him down in blunt terms. The police and Bobby Jindal are just two of the many who the pieces proclaim, “ain’t shit.”
The paintings still have an obsessive folk art quality, but they also draw more obviously on hip-hop culture. It’s easy to see the connection between Davenport’s work and memorial T-shirts. The writing on the art has a graffiti-like quality, the blunt nature of his critique and its repetition can be seen to have roots in hip-hop, and he plays with identity as Lil Wayne and Jay-Z do. Over the title written at the bottom of each piece is written, “T.D.B.C. Presents,” then the right-hand corner explains that the art is a “Taurus Da Bull Creation,” as if Taurus Da Bull is someone other than himself.
I assume marching bands hold personal significance to Davenport, but they clearly carry an aura of nostalgia and a respect for a very New Orleans institution. Davenport has taken what was an enigmatic, charming subject matter and transformed it into something that allows him to speak to his world more completely and more forcefully. He’s made work that is visually simple but rich with associations and echoes, and his show is one of the high points of Prospect.2.