Enkindled Memories: The Art of Whitfield Lovell
by Lilly Wei, Neuberger Museum of Art
Whitfield Lovell is an inveterate scavenger and collector. He seems to be a born taxonomist, a close examiner and evaluator of material culture. In this respect he has always been comfortable with the play of time, both private and historical.1 For seven years he has created delicately orchestrated assemblages which blend surfaces, images, and objects to call into memory an ethos of the African-American experience in the United States. Among the visual objective correlatives used by the artist to evoke complex emotions about the African-American legacy is the sign of wear. It suffuses the wall and floor boards the artist uses as his support surface. Onto these naturally distressed surfaces Lovell applies life-size charcoal drawings of African-Americans who look out at the viewer with apparent composure and steadfastness. The charcoal that is applied to these planks is, of course, charred wood. It is used to poetically invoke the notion of a return to origins in purified, transubstantiated form.2
The source photographs Lovell uses for his hand-drawn likenesses are anonymous portraits taken at the end of the nineteenth century and in the early decades of the twentieth. These photographs have a direct bearing on his overall artistic project. Found in fleamarkets and with photo dealers throughout the United States, these often poignant familial images are, as the artist describes them: “stand-ins for my own ancestors. These people were defining themselves through their ability to own and define their own space.”3
Lovell’s nearly iconic character studies are sensitively delineated. Ennobled and activated through the artist’s handling, they seem to float, hovering on and over and through their surfaces as pure presence. They are empathetic yet detached. This dissociated quality occurs by virtue of photography’s registering in the mind as what Roland Barthes has termed “a shared hallucination.”4 Photography, he maintains, “actually blocks memory, quickly becomes a counter-memory”5 Susan Sontag also refers to the photograph’s peculiar status when she notes that photography “is both a pseudo presence and a token of absence… a neat slice of time, not a flow… all photographs are memento mori… “6 Whitfield Lovell’s portraits, his charcoal renditions of the photographic impulse, attain their magnetic vigor by virtue of their displacement and slippage as a twice-removed illusion of the “real.” Depending on your point of view, the artist’s touch indemnifies us from photography’s signifying absence and loss. Or perhaps the touch’s intervention is the apotheosis of the pain of that loss. Likeness, reinscribed through the energies of the artist’s hand, in a way cancels out the photograph’s indexical code of instantaneousness by mimetically re-presenting (and doubling) it. The hand stopgaps the photograph’s immediacy, but in denying that immediacy it participates, in some measure, in its codes. The “slice of time” remains a slice but is, paradoxically, a flow as well. Suspended halfway between illusion and mobilized evidentiary fact, Lovell’s two-dimensional image-making is charged with a resolutely indeterminable quality. This poetic ambiguity lies at the center of the strong and immediate impact of these works.
A crucial component of Lovell’s vision is his entirely convincing nuanced use of artifacts. To his wooden boards—adorned with likenesses and poses so directly confronting us—the artist attaches found objects, selected intuitively yet meticulously. These items complete the scene, offering us a hint of narrative that is open-ended and suggestive. The diverse objects Lovell has freely used in the past have included antiques, coins, and clothes as well as artificial flowers and an array of natural substances. In conjunction with the charcoal drawings, every element is balanced off another with compositional scrupulousness. The overall effect is extraordinary in its drama and pull. The artist, through the insertion into his work of inferred possessions, allows an atmosphere of storytelling, however oblique, to permeate his compositions. These objects, along with the haptic aspect of the wood plank surfaces, assume a totemic quality; as the eye begins to take them in. the viewer’s own space time seems to slow to a trickle. In this arena of enkindled memory7 the viewer cannot help but make associations between the surface textures, colors, and titles of each composition as well as connections between charcoal likenesses and the objects that surround them.
Whitfield Lovell’s interest in creating tableaux incorporating old wallboards or floor planks with wall drawings and objects began in 1995. At that time, during an artist’s residency program at Rice University, he was invited to participate in Project Row Houses, a nonprofit venue in Houston, Texas, and created a site-specific installation entitled Echo. There, in one of eight abandoned “shotgun” houses, Lovell’s remarkable encounter between mimetic representation and architectural space began. After Echo, Lovell’s desire to “feel the spirit of the past for a moment, to feel the presence of these people” reached near mytho-poetic intensity: “I want it to be a kind of ancestor worship. I want beliefs to be handed down.”8
The artist’s visual investigation of forgotten individual memory as well as silent collective memory culminated in 1999 at the University of North Texas Art Gallery. His Whispers from the Walls, a walk-in installation funded by the NEA and the Lannan Foundation, was an astonishingly lifelike environment in which was summoned, through vibrant detail, the presence and daily lives of anonymous African-Americans in the South in the early decades of the last century. On the interior walls of a re-created freestanding one-room house, placed in the center of the gallery as well as on planks leaning along the gallery’s walls. Lovell mounted a few life-size charcoal drawings selected from photocopies of approximately one hundred rare original prints, themselves chosen from more than two thousand in the Texas African American Photography Archive in Dallas. Whispers from the Walls incorporated recordings of music and conversation, worn clothing, and carefully lit objects from the home, the farm, and the factory to induce a trance-like state of startling immediacy for the viewer.
The response to Whitfield’s installation was electric. His elegiac artistic recontextualization of a lost era had movingly transmitted in paradigmatic form what Henri Lefebvre has described as social space: “a special space which is at once work and product—a materialization of ‘social being.'”9
Two years later, in November 2001, Lovell created another installation, entitled Visitation: The Richmond Project, at the Hand Workshop Art Center in Virginia. It includes Our Best, the largest and most complex tableau Lovell has created to date. It extends twenty-two feet along the gallery wall, and its panels incorporate twelve figures and myriad objects such as buggy and carriage wheels and chests of coins, for Visitation Lovell began experimenting with a new, round format. His Coins—single heads drawn in charcoal on wooden molds—were placed on the floor, long-lost and devalued currency finally finding a home. The other component is a one-room environment, an extensively detailed dining area whose introspective intensity is magnified by the use of a voice recording which metronomically intones the names and addresses of many African-Americans who lived and worked in the Richmond area in the last century.
It is important to recognize that the character of Lovell’s image-making is due in no small measure to his controlled synthesis of two alternative genres of representation, what historian Philip Fisher refers to as “pictorial realism” and “state-based realism” (as in “state of mind”). The first, which he considers a “self-allegorizing” imitation,10 is self-contained and detached; it “speaks for itself,”11 working on our feelings “by means of sudden impact.”12 He views this imagery as “a form of democratic representation… as it sets before us these everyday strangers .. .it might be better to call these figures fellow citizens, or people known to be within our world of concern and interest”13 In Lovell’s art this photo-based documentary genre, leavened through ;^ the use of found objects, is modulated by a narrative-driven, “state-based” realism that “gives way to a more intimate, more empathetic… narrative.”14
For Lovell the texture and quality of the worn wood—its nicks and gouges, nails and nail holes, faded paint, distinctive knotholes, and grain through which light seems to flicker as the charcoal strokes are applied—has a language of its own. It forms a subliminal narrative which shifts the project away from the purely pictorial. The contextual interplay among architectural references and object insertion infers a type of action, however subdued, that alludes to physical activity, to life experience. The tableau Mine (2001) is a persuasive example of this crossover effect. Visually, the screen door implies an ambivalent double movement: of seeing (or sensing) the woman through a doorway, or of being seen by that same woman through the same opening. Mine involves a complex psychological dimension, inviting the viewer to participate in a prolonged guessing game on the roles played by the subject and a knife. The woman’s posture, her expression, and the position of her hands and fingers in relation to the knife’s position and slight tilt suggest not violence and threat, as might first appear, but rather self-protection and self-empowerment. Such realism, Fisher points out, “draws us into mimetic awareness of our own state… through a path of somatic identification.”15
In Cage (2001) the sturdily composed image of a woman looks out at the viewer as she clasps her arms behind the back of her fashionably cut dress. Her hair is pulled up and the outline of a bow is visible at the top. Her handsome features were transcribed by the artist from a faded sepia photograph and there is a strong, warm intelligence in her gaze, but her identity is unknown. The image is rendered over very old wallboard planks whose brittle surfaces are riddled with holes and small nails. Hanging from several of these nails are tattered pieces of delicate muslin, remnants of the fabric originally nailed to the walls and, in another time, used as a base for wallpaper paste. The muslin fragments fall over the wood surfaces like rivulets of tears. A scuffed antique birdcage that matches the contours of the housemistress’s lower torso is attached to the bottom register of the assemblage.
In the large tableau Missoura (2001), the artist has charcoaled on worn wallboards the life-size image of four African-American gentlemen, strikingly attired in hats and suits—ghostly incarnations of the past. They are celebrating or commemorating a now-forgotten event. Three hold walking sticks or canes; the one at the far right leans heavily on his. The tallest and handsomest of the group is holding an open book. On the gallery floor in front of this man’s image is a drum, placed on a slant with drumsticks crossed in front of it. Many possibilities suggest themselves with regard to the identity of these gentlemen. Were they war veterans? Musicians? Elected officials? Businessmen? Their names may be lost, but the confidence of these men, resolutely posing for the photographer at a civic gathering in the twenties or thirties, is palpable, and tellingly captured in Lovell’s art.
There is a quiet strength in Lovell’s image-making that is compelling, but his intentions are complex. During my visit to his studio he recounted his disappointment with the recent reaction of a group of black schoolchildren viewing his artwork. Evidently mystified, the children concluded that his likenesses were of slaves. “Their sense of our history and its complexities is lost on them,” he said quietly. “It’s either slaves or Martin Luther King.” His art intends to evoke a lost time, a memory of uncelebrated African-Americans who appear in history books only in passing or as statistics, if at all. Lovell’s work conveys an empathy with and understanding of a people who possessed very little materially yet who lived, who survived, with dignity.
The familiar is what I focus on. The special-ness of the ordinary. My work simply says that this is who these individuals were and this is where a people came from. All of the photographs I work from reflect a certain image that the subjects had of themselves. Everyone had their special clothing and their prized possessions somewhere: maybe hanging behind the door, maybe on the dresser. The rest of the week they may have been laborers or seamstresses or nannies. But when they stood in front of the camera or in front of a mirror before going to church they knew who they were. They had themselves immortalized in their “Sunday best,” because in spite of how they were viewed by the rest of the world, their images of themselves were tangible, and critical for their survival.
Lovell invites the viewer to participate in a form of reconditioning of history. He wants the viewer to connect with a phenomenon of time past being time present, to feel the lives of “ordinary” black people and to understand that this ordinariness is merely a point of view, that there is a specialness to routine and the commonplace. We can, he suggests, consider these people either as ciphers in a large historical continuum or as individuals who have attained fulfillment with honor and grace.
A spirit of becoming and presencing permeates the art’s quiet and unassailable strength. It engenders a melancholic beauty reflected through Lovell’s project: to address the commonality of good faith and civility in the lives of unheralded African-Americans in the late nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century.
The magisterial solemnity of Whitfield Lovell’s work arises out of its reach: to participate in a historical and social dimension while connecting one-on-one emotionally with his anonymous subjects. As the glimmering quality of his tableaux demonstrates metaphorically, social beings no matter how ordinary-emerge and submerge out of conditions and situations shared with other social beings. Lovell’s spectral presences, with their interiorized, level gazes and their special possessions close at hand, are presented as moral entities because they are engaged in a struggle for self-definition and integrity. Lovell’s empathic tableaux are illuminating. They shed light on the artist’s search for-and his honoring of-this heritage. As appreciation of any heritage can be ignited only through awareness and compassion, bell hooks’s observation is akin to blowing on its warm embers and making them glow: “We can value and cherish the ‘meaning of this experience without essentializing it. And those who have kept the faith, who embody in our life practices aspects of that cultural legacy, can pass it on.”16