Whitfield Lovell: Kith and Kin
DC Moore Gallery October 2 – November 8, 2008
According to recent interviews, Whitfield Lovell’s earliest memories are of his father developing family photographs in the Bronx apartment where he was raised. Now, the artist collects photographs, tintypes, and calling cards of anonymous African-Americans, drawing their images on planks of stained and weathered wood and, most recently, on smooth cream paper. Lovell’s superb draftsmanship matches the photographs’ precision, while the silky gradations he achieves with charcoal give his realism an unexpected depth and resonance.
Lovell has been exploring the relationship between African-American history and portraiture for almost twenty years. His new work, now on display at DC Moore Gallery, is a subtle development of this pursuit. Titled Kith and Kin, the show elegantly imagines how African–Americans living in the years between Emancipation and the Civil Rights Movement forged identities and family connections despite, but also because of, violence, rupture, and hostility. In Lovell’s hands, we see that portraiture was a way to assert the visibility that accompanies claims to citizenship: his attentive depictions convey the grave risks and galvanizing possibilities of this assertion. To suggest historical context, the work in Kith and Kin includes an array of objects that point to the violence of racism as well as aspects of everyday life outside of racism’s reach: boxing gloves, axes, train wheels, walking canes, darts, bullets, globes, flags, broaches, and radios. These objects compellingly interweave drawing and sculpture to evoke the contours of lived history.
Lovell possesses talent for creating work that represents African-American history through the particularities of individuals’ lives. “Autour Du Monde” (2008) depicts three portraits of African-American soldiers wearing World War I uniforms. Lovell has placed old globes at their sides and at their feet. The globes’ faded yellow continents highlight the blonde warmth of the wood planks; the turquoise, representing the world’s oceans, crisply defines the inky black lines of Lovell’s drawings. The soldiers in these portraits have seen the world and together their images evoke the nuanced combination of courage and humility that may have originally motivated them to announce their place on the world stage before the eye of the camera. Lovell’s charcoal seems to reanimate these men’s desires, while the wood’s natural textures represent the undeniable passing of time.
The portrait at the center of “Autour Du Monde” is of a young man whose comfortable expression and suave, sophisticated posture recalls “Gay Chaps at the Bar,” the sonnet sequence by Gwendolyn Brooks that lovingly depicts the smart and sensual bodily freedom newly available to African-American soldiers serving in Europe during World War II. In the portrait, the man rests his arm on a photographer’s studio prop, a tall but narrow table, and one booted leg crosses the other at mid-calf. His slightly–curved posture and upward-looking glance recall the grace of Greek statuary. In subtle contrast, the flanking portraits call to mind the caution with which African-American soldiers were forced to comport themselves within the military and the militantly racist Jim Crow culture. The men’s arms are stiff at their sides, suggesting discomfort with their passivity. One man’s eyes look out from behind the brim of his hat with trepidation, while his companion’s expression seems constructed as a careful defense against the gaze of the outside world.
The objects Lovell places within the frame of these portraits do not reveal historical or narrative context easily. In “Cut” (2008), Lovell depicts a middle-aged woman in a thick coat that buttons loosely at the waist. She wears a day bonnet at a sharp angle and is posed looking diagonally across the frame with hurt and determined eyes. In the wood plank furthest to the right are the lacy remnants of a floral wallpaper that give a sense of gentility and beauty to the work, but also contrast sharply with the two axes and two nails Lovell has placed to her left. The axes suggest the violence against which this woman may have defended herself, but this response relies too easily on narratives of her victimization. How do we see this woman in relation to racist violence without cutting into her image with cruel simplicity? Lovell’s work offers the possibility of reading images of African-Americans without filling in our gaps of knowledge too quickly.
In his most recent work, Lovell reproduces faces rather than whole bodies. Instead of drawing on wood, he works with paper. These choices bring more space into the compositions and make the connection between the person and the object all the more mysterious. In “Kin XII (Fakarouni)” (2008), Lovell has drawn the profile of a woman who looks up with mournful reverence. She wears a soft gray headscarf tied tightly at her chin. The work’s title is from a love song written by the famous Egyptian singer Oum Kolthum, about the difficulty of forgetting a lost love, but Lovell’s work expands the narrative to include desires for justice. Below the woman is a bouquet of lilies made of fabric, silvery sequins, and clear beads, which might represent the beauty of remembering these desires in the face of racism. While the piece raises far more questions than it answers, “Kin XII (Fakarouni),” like all of Lovell’s work, honors African-Americans’ efforts to render aspects of their ancestors’ lives that they cannot fully know as a loving gift of the imagination.