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Originally published Friday, August 3, 2012 at 5:30 AM

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'Noah Davis: Savage Wilds': Trash TV as elegant art

"Noah Davis: Savage Wilds," at Seattle's James Harris Gallery, takes tabloid TV fodder — "The Jerry Springer Show" — and turns it, mysteriously, into the painterly equivalent of spare, elegant prose. Through Aug. 24, 2012.

Seattle Times arts writer

Exhibit review

'Noah Davis: Savage Wilds'

11 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Aug. 24, James Harris Gallery, 312 Second Ave. S., Seattle; free (206-903-6220 or www.jamesharrisgallery.com).
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In the six big oil paintings in his new show at James Harris Gallery, Noah Davis' eye is fiercely focused on the dynamics of the action at hand.

His subject: the brawls, breakdowns, lurid confessions and conflicts on "The Jerry Springer Show" and similarly trashy reality-TV fare.

Stance tells you everything, here. Details — strangely, beguilingly — are disposable as Davis, working from video stills, creates the equivalent of "spare prose" in paint. There are canny distortions of figures in his compositions, and subtle shadows and shadings in his color. But there's not a single unnecessary brush stroke.

Take "Jerry," a 60-inch-by-74-inch oil-on-canvas depicting high drama in the TV studio. In it, two women are having a knockdown fight. One, held back by a security guard, has lost her shoes. The other, tipping backward on the floor, looks like she's in for a crash landing.

Davis, a Seattle native now living in Los Angeles, captures the raucous energy of the scene. Yet he leaves the women's facial features entirely blank, as though the rage consuming them and the way that rage is being served up as tabloid entertainment have somehow combined to wipe out their personalities. (It seems worth noting that the security guard and a sound man, deftly steering clear of the mayhem, do have actual, if minimally sketched, facial detail.)

In a more mournful and harrowing way, "You Are ... " is equally dramatic. Its central male figure is crouched over, clearly distressed, his head in his hands. Two imposing women stand nearby, pointing to their right and either encouraging or admonishing him. A quieter female figure behind him seems to be reserving judgment about him, while in the background two men seem indifferent to his troubles.

In "Crush on Daughter-in-Law," a different kind of tension unfolds. On the left: a middle-aged man, seated on a couch, who appears to be calmly explaining himself. On the right: a woman standing next to him, looking determinedly away from him.

The focus — and the most ambiguous part of the painting — is the man's hands, which are more elongated energetic streaks than naturalistically depicted palms, wrists and fingers. The composition is different from anything Francis Bacon ever did, but the sense Davis' blurred paint gives you of the turmoil at play in a figure who's deceptively self-possessed in appearance has a definite affinity with Bacon's approach to the human figure.

The other three paintings in the exhibit don't have as strong an impact. But as variations on a theme, they have their place here.

"Noah Davis: Savage Wilds" is a small show, but it's a memorable one.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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