Cass Davis

HEARTLAND     Oct 2019- Jan 2020

Solo Exhibition, G-CADD, St. Louis

A view of the factory, an American flag at half-staff. The landscape, an infinite expanse of field. The revival. The harvest. A death, a resurrection— a haunting, no doubt. In Heartland, we are asked to consider the landscape as embodying both felt and unknown trauma. We are prompted to take a closer look at an identity so close and familiar that we don’t stop to listen to the ghosts trapped inside.

Heartland examines the artist’s own Midwestern Evangelical upbringing. Their sculptures investigate relationships between redemption, resurrection, embodied trauma, and the failure of the American dream. Locating these sculptures within the very landscape to which they point presents a new kind of context for the work. What relationships develop when the landscape is reflected back at itself? What stories does it tell? Does the material allow for embodied trauma to speak?

Rapture, Apparition   2020

Hand-woven Jacquard cloth, aged wooden billboard frame. Approx. 8ft x 9ft x 4ft

Backyard, Monolith    2020

Cedar, soil, reclaimed wood platform, clamp light, dried flowers, remaining materials on request.
11.5ft x 2ft x 6in (Monolith), 4ft x 5ft x 5ft (platform)

Backyard, Monolith is an excavation of the connectedness of the trauma that lies in my own backyard, that in which I attempt to grow a garden. Excavated objects speak to a felt absence and embodied trauma. The structure is stacked vertically, an exhausting effort towards transcendence. This gesture implies a spiritual ecstasy is possible through the release of trauma by excavation of our own history. And when we look deep enough, as is in the case of my backyard, my trauma history includes the erasure of those who stood on this ground long before me. When I consider what rests beneath in the soil, the history in my town—that is every small town’s history, this feels like a memorial.

I imagine each panel arranged like the archaeological record, expanded so that as a viewer we struggle to see the top, which  barely clears the ceiling rafts. Excavated soil is hoisted to the sky. The top panel holds my own history, my family, our recent imprint in the topsoil. Unexcavated trauma. A portrait of a feminine, but white Jesus, who failed to protect me. Below lies the mark of lives lived, but also of deep violence. The silence, the stillness in the work, the absence is felt. Dried flowers are placed around objects as gesture of mourning. A haunting garden.

And the platform is an object of the institution. It is both 1920’s revival pulpit and historic landmarker. And its failure to bring the viewer really any closer to the out of reach—or its inaccessibility, for that matter—is a testament to the failure of our current systems to address the unresolved trauma that rots like a disease in the bones of whiteness. Collectively, we have repressed memories. Repressed histories. Retrieving those collective memories is an arduous process, but it must be done for communities to heal. For individuals to heal. For the earth to heal. And the dominant white patriarchal narrative does not want us to excavate. Because it knows what we will find.

I grew up in a town with a fraught racist history. Still disproportionately white, it was a sundown town until the 1970’s. Once a capital for the KKK in the 50’s and 60’s, in the Jim Crowe era the local newspaper was owned by the Klan. I have newspaper clippings from the 1920’s of white supremacist calls for violence run alongside coupons for purchasing a Bible, followed by the farming news. My childhood home was located in the historic section of town. Through archival research I learned that my house was possibly built in the late 1800’s as a “servant’s” quarters. I can only guess who initially lived there. It was also located one street over from where one of the very last documented Native American settlements was forcibly removed from the land to make way for white settlers. 

Ultimately, my backyard is stolen land. My only house key is buried at the very top. The object is haunted.

Backyard, Monolith represents the seemingly insurmountable history to be addressed and excavated. But as trauma theory states, it is only once trauma is acknowledged that we are able to fully begin the process of healing.

From Tracing Faults
Chicago Artist’s Coalition, January 2020

Backyard, Monolith offers an immediate access point into the exhibition and its framework. A column of framed soil traces a path from the ground up an into the space of the vaulted gallery ceiling. This monumental structure creates an implicit fault line, a rift that holds a series of unearthed artifacts that create a fragmented glimpse of the rural Midwestern landscape and culture from which they were collected. These objects and materials seem out of place in a contemporary art gallery, and magnify the dissonance between large urban cities like Chicago and the small communities that populate the rural landscape. The top frame contains a Westernized and feminine portrayal of a young Jesus Christ. This inclusion along with the supporting cast of materials points ot Davis’s Evangelical upbringing and underscores the soncervative and religiously driven temperament that steers Midwestern ideology.

In front of the monolith, a weathered platfrom provides a marginally closer view of the structure as it stretches out of reach. The design makes reference to landmark viewing platforms and also to 1920s era revival pulpits. The viewer is invited to step up unto the platform and gaze up wit htheir body at the soil and its contents as they extend into the sky. For the artist, the experience serves as metaphor for the excavation of our histories, of excavating what’s beneath our feet as a possible key to our transcendence.”

-Jeff Robinson, curator

Raising Girls    2019

Aspect Ratio Gallery LITHIUM Gallery

Video installation + Performance,
Photographic installation,
Cinema view here

Performance at LITHIUM Gallery, June 2019. Screening of Raising Girls, sound and performance collaboration with CSO Cellist Katinka Kleijn. Performance documentation by Farah Salem.

Davis and Kleijn attempt to divine the inherent sounds from within textiles, bodies, and exhaustive tension. A phenomenological expedition fully heard but only seen with the light from Davis’ video Raising Girls.

Raising Girls parses out gender, sexuality and patriarchy within Evangelical America. It explores the gendering of girls, James Dobson’s pardon of serial killer and rapist Ted Bundy, reclamation of sacred feminine spaces, play, innocence, and the queer gaze. Frames of the video move between what feels like archival images, to crime scene photos, to glimpses of intimate bodies. Flashbacks form an afterimage that burns a memory that is mesmerizingly difficult to reconstruct. Through sound and image, Davis and Kleijn propose new ways of accessing embodied trauma.

*Special thanks to artists María Luisa Conlon, Polly Jane, Ona Siân, and Chloe Cucinotta

Raising Girls, Photographic installation.

Witness    2017

30 bales of hay, reproduction of image from 1908 Springfield Race Riot, baling twine.

*Image courtesy of U of I Springfield Archives and Sangamon Valley Collection.

The 1908 Springfield Race Riots left 64 homes and business in ashes, and at least seven people dead. The riots caused a Black exodus from the city – particularly from neighborhoods here on the north side of town – but were also a catalyst for the formation of the NAACP.

Witness accesses that local history through the research and re-presentation of archival material. The image itself has been preserved as a record and a form of testimony; as a reproducible document, it bookmarks an important and overlooked aspect of local history that reverberates through the present.

The installation is positioned in a void that speaks to the displacement of people and history, and the ghostly absence of site, of home, of memory, and of justice that are all attached to that loss. Further, the viewer is placed between different modes of looking – to look at what is visible versus vanished, to look at others looking, to be looked at while looking – but with the caveat that not all acts of looking are equal, especially during the Jim Crow era in 1908 Springfield and elsewhere. For surely there is an undeniable contrast between the role of the white spectator or witness in racist violence (calling to mind the white crowds in lynching photographs, for example), versus the accusations of “reckless eyeballing” against Black men who would be beaten, killed, or lynched for so much as even glancing at a white woman.

The experience of looking also provokes questions about who are the people in the foreground – part of the racist mob? Curious bystanders and spectators? Witnesses who directly saw what happened and could give oral or written account? Each of these possibilities prompts a further reckoning with the structures of white supremacy and racial violence that underpin the race riots that occurred here: are we actively perpetuating this systemic violence, passively condoning it, or creating and enacting testimony that could help to dismantle it?

-Text in collaboration with Greg Ruffing, Curator
Terrain Biennial, Springfield, IL