Whitfield Lovell: Le Rouge et Le Noir
New York CityDC Moore
Le Rouge et Le Noir
October 16 – December 18, 2021
Whitfield Lovell’s current show at DC Moore, Le Rouge et Le Noir, borrows its title as much from Nina Simone’s rendition of Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas” (“Do Not Leave Me”) as Stendahl’s novel. The title also refers to the two bodies of work in the gallery. One, titled “Reds”is a series of assemblages pairing vintage objects with black conte crayon drawings on red paper. The other, titled “Winterreise” (“Winter’s Journey”) after Schubert’s 24 song cycle, has silver conte crayon drawings, some paired with objects, some not, on black paper. Both bodies of work are consistent with Lovell’s long-standing practice, for which he won a MacArthur fellowship in 2007. Essential to that practice are his nuanced renditions of Black men and women from various stages in life and time periods. Although Whitfield does work from sources, such as newspaper clippings, photographs, and the like, these representations do not feel like portraiture. Indeed, he has insisted that was never his goal. Rather, these representations float somewhere between memory and archetype, the particular and the universal, giving them a rare psychological power. They get into our heads, leading to associations we would have never considered had we maintained our distance.
DC Moore made a wise choice to show “Reds” and “Winterreise”in separate spaces, as mixing them would have diluted their different emotional registers. The people in “Reds” exude purpose. Their styles of dress place them sometime during America’s Gilded Age. Their stiff poses, typical of photographic portraiture of that era with its long exposure times, betoken a suppressed energy. The Red VI, 2021 shows a middle-aged man whose embonpoint and nice clothes suggest a successful businessman. He looks distracted, perhaps going over in his mind the details of his next deal as he waits for his picture to be taken. His hands are tucked into his pants pockets as if he were trying to keep them still. The toy train at the bottom makes the perfect emblem for this entrepreneur and his era of unfettered capitalism when the railroad boom unleashed rapid uneven economic growth, just as the tech boom has for our time. The train also put this reviewer in mind of one of his own Gilded Age ancestors who was involved in that industry. As we see with The Red VI, the people and objects represented in “Reds” have just the right mix of telling detail within a generic framing to make them ideal for the projection of fantasies.
The energy in the “Winterreise” space is subdued, with dark walls that absorb the light. Lovell made the “Winterreise” series during a period of introspection and mourning, and it shows. The silver conte crayon on black paper gives the subjects a ghost-like aspect. They are also literally disembodied, with only the head and shoulders showing, whereas the subjects in “Reds” have full-length torsos, giving them solidity. The “Winterreise” subjects’ dress suggests the early 20th century up to 1920s, a period when segregation was beginning to make life intolerable for POCs across America. In the “Winterreise” series 2021 drawing of the young man with the bowler hat, his eyes are downcast, and his mouth set with suppressed emotion. Does the toy bus in the frame point to segregated public transportation, when Black folks had to ride at the back of the bus? Who knows if this is what Lovell had in mind for this drawing? The fact remains the assemblage is so affecting that it is impossible to not identify with this young man and weave a narrative about him.
Le Rouge et le Noir has also included a few works from Lovell’s Spell series from 2021, which projects in its subjects’ dress and appearance a Sixties/early Seventies time stamp, during the growth of the Black Power movement. Spell no. 17 (Richesse Noire), 2021 is a drawing on white paper in black conte crayon of a mature woman with spectacular natural hair. Lovell excels in his portrayals of women, each having a gravitas equal to or greater than the men in his works. For this reviewer, Spell no. 17 (Richesse Noire) was one of the most gripping pieces in the show. The woman’s eyes are closed, and her jaw is set. The object in this assemblage is a wooden canoe loaded with what looks like cannon balls. Is the canoe an emblem of African roots, or the cannon balls weapons for a battle? Who can say for sure? Lovell may give our imaginations plenty of room for speculation, but her expression is unmistakable. She’s not backing down.