A World in One Room – Whitfield Lovell art exhibition
by Nancy Princenthal, Art in America
Recalling, in part, an African-American community razed by whites in the 1920s, a recent installation by Whitfield Lovell evokes in elegiac detail the rural South and the quiet, dignified lives of its inhabitants.
In a noisy, distractible culture much absorbed with things boldly new, speaking softly of the past requires a certain quixotic determination, as well as clarity and passion. All are richly evident in Whitfield Lovell’s “Whispers from the Walls,” an installation that opened at the University of North Texas Art Gallery in Denton and traveled to Austin, Seattle and the Studio Museum in Harlem before its final stop at Rutgers State University in Newark. It focuses on a one-room cabin built and furnished with salvaged materials, in the manner of a rural residence in the American South dating roughly to the 1920s–a world to which Lovell, who was born in 1959 and grew up in the Bronx, was connected through his grandparents.
Inside the cabin, which viewers enter through either of two small doors, there is a bed with an old quilt on which rests a bankbook, a frayed copy of a small volume titled Strive and Succeed and a straw hat. A pair of shoes is set neatly on the wooden floor, a strongbox is just visible beneath the bed, and at its foot is a blanket trunk. A shaving table holds a Bible history; an old leather suitcase stands against the wall. Carefully arranged on a dressing table are a comb-and-brush set and a string of pearls. Lingerie is draped across a chair. A little dining table is set for a solitary diner, with one plate and one spoon. Roses and carnations, a decanter filled with whiskey and perfume bottles provide barely perceptible aromas. Everything is tidy but worn, adequate but small. Though it contains the appointments for a full house–bedroom, kitchen, dressing table, indeed a great deal more than is immediately apparent–the cabin does not feel cluttered. A world in one room, it is as condensed and considered in every detail as a dream or the surface of a painting, and in its grip the visitor/viewer feels both uncomfortably big and reduced to a state of dreamy transport.
The effect is due not just to the installation’s furnishings and scale, but, above all, to the portraits Lovell has drawn in charcoal directly on the unpainted, weathered wooden walls. Based on photographs selected from among thousands in a Texas archive, they depict men and women who might have occupied such a house. Because the drawings derive from images produced in commercial studios, they are in a sense representations of self-portraits; they show the sitters as they wanted themselves seen, unlike so many of the most familiar images of the old rural South, photographs taken to document its poverty and often its shame. Lovell’s drawings, by contrast, are records of dignity, however hard-won it may be imagined to have been. One is of a young couple, facing forward and holding hands. Another is a three-quarters view of a middle-aged man holding a book. There is a drawing of a slightly older woman, seated, and one of a young woman standing. All are well dressed and poised, their features composed, their bearing elegant. But for all their composure and self-possession, the figures have a ghostliness that can be attributed in a couple of cases to the subjects’ thoughtful, distant expressions, and in all to the manner of Lovell’s draftsmanship. Rendered with great skill and precision, the facial features are a little softened, as if by age. These drawings’ evident origin in photographs of people now certainly long dead makes them doubly ephemeral–shadows of shadows. When the images are caught by reflection in a graceful wall mirror, they are once more displaced and desubstantialized.
“Whispers from the Walls” is a title that would suit this installation perfectly even if it did not literally describe a further element: an audiotape with barely discernible voices that seem to include the high, piping tones of children (they sound almost birdlike) and of women, also high, as well as the upward lilt of questioning (the words “really? really?” can just be heard). “If these walls could talk” is the figure of speech at this work’s heart, as conventional as prayer (which the whispering clearly evokes) and expressive of experience that is often beneath mainstream art’s radar. There is more recorded sound outside the cabin, where an old Victrola plays country blues, scratchy and low, providing a soundtrack, as in a movie, and also an auditory screen for the domestic voices inside.
Further muffling is provided by the carpet of wood mulch that surrounds the cabin, at the perimeter of which are heaps of old clothes, used but not appealingly antique, strewn haphazardly, like flotsam. A kind of temporal boundary zone, this margin of discarded clothing must be crossed before one enters the cabin’s precinct. Beyond this limit, on the white walls of the gallery proper, are more drawings on weathered boards. A dapper young man with a walking stick appears on planks which bear the faded letters of an alphabet keyed to abbreviated names of cars, some discontinued: De Soto, Stud (presumably for Studebaker), Plym Valiant. On boards still adorned with a bit of flowered wallpaper and some tattered linen backing for scraps of pale blue paint is a drawing of a young woman, smiling slightly, holding the brim of a big hat. A third freestanding work depicts a man in suit and tie, seated, and a woman standing with her hand on his shoulder, hat in hand. Both look off into the distance, thoughtfully. In front of them are two real chairs, narrow, armless, chipped and old.
This installation follows three others by Lovell that were firmly tied to their contexts. The first, in 1993, was at the Villa Val Lemme in Capriatta d’Orba, Italy–a lavish 19th-century residence built by an Italian slave trader who was active into the early 20th century, and who decorated the ceilings of his house with grotesque stereotypes of Africans. Working directly on the building’s walls, Lovell drew a head, hands and naked female body. His second installation, at Project Row Houses in Houston (1995), and third, at the Fortlaleza de la Cabana, as sole U.S. representative at the 1997 Havana Biennial, similarly involved drawings made directly on the wall. It seems fitting that “Whispers from the Walls” is the first of his installations to travel, since it is, in large measure, about displacement. In fact it was impelled, in part, by a historical incident of violent removal: an African-American community in Denton (where this work originated) was leveled at the turn of the 19th century because it was deemed too close to a white women’s college. The expression of absence and memory, which seems the emotional motivation of so much of Lovell’s recent work–including the freestanding assemblages that were shown this past winter at DC Moore Gallery in New York–is supported, in “Whispers from the Walls,” by the responsibility to a history of forcible disappearance.
At the same time that Lovell’s work was on view at the Studio Museum, there was also an exhibition of a suite of woodcuts by Martin Puryear, made to illustrate a new deluxe edition of Jean Toomer’s Cane. Toomer’s landmark book, first published in 1923, describes the same period and place as does “Whispers from the Walls.” And like Lovell’s work, Toomer’s is lush and elliptical, composed of unlike fragments (poetry, chant, narrative prose) and rich with the symbolism of home. A character named Rhobert, for instance, “wears a house, like a monstrous diver’s helmet, on his head” and believes that “The dead house is stuffed. The stuffing is alive,” because God blew his breath into it. Stifling and transcendent, at once a safeguard, tomb and spiritual refuge, Rhobert’s house is close kin to the one Lovell has brought to life in “Whispers from the Walls.”