“Whitfield Lovell,” Frieze Magazine

by Kobena Mercer, via frieze.com

Whitfield Lovell
DC Moore Gallery

k_mercerWhat happens when memory is a place of extremes? The charcoal drawings on wooden planks in Whitfield Lovell’s show ‘Recent Tableaux’ evoke the ghost stories of African American history by playing with two types of found object. The drawings seem to coax out the figurative presence of anonymous turn-of-the-century subjects from the mundane household furnishings that once surrounded their lives. While some pieces join image and object into narrative contiguity, such as the votive-like arrangement of glass jars and candles placed in the foreground of Potion (2000), other juxtapositions are more allegorical, such as the knife placed besides a man’s head in Brethren (2000).

Closely related to his life-size reconstruction of a rural ‘shotgun’ shack, in Whispers from the Walls (1999), the combined presence of objects and photo-based drawing creates an aura from the subtle discrepancy between history and memory. When the past cannot be filed away in a narrative storage system of public record, it roams interior spaces with the persecutory menace of intrusive memory, like the murdered child who stalks the story in Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1988). Lovell’s approach to the iconography of ‘home’ is all the more interesting in its avoidance of the folksy pathos that often saturates this theme in Black American art and literature. The faint odour that comes off the disused clothes strewn about as a pedestal to the empty house indicates that the past is coming back, like Hamlet’s father, to haunt the family home. In a sense Lovell’s work has always been about the ‘homelessness’ of memory that arises when the trauma of the past does not or cannot pass into collective representation as socially agreed ‘fact’.

Evoking the ambience of the family album, Lovell’s early work brought the meticulous rendering of disembodied hands, faces and clothes into a cave-like space that was almost pressed below the threshold of visibility by the swirling layers of oil stick. His subsequent move into installation, which began with wall drawings in a slave trader’s mansion in Italy, (Villa Val Lemme, 1993), led to the architectural salvage of abandoned houses in Texas (Echo, 1995) and the use of household furniture at the Havana Biennial in 1997, all of which established a quasi-theatrical setting in which objects extended into the viewing space. The sense of being in the midst of something that is not actually there owes much to the indexical character of the materials involved in the assemblages.

While some configurations may elude understanding – such as the man’s hat on the bedspread, which embodies a vernacular proverb that ‘someone is going to jail’ – the implication that such objects were once touched and handled by living subjects, whose identity is now lost or unknown, charges the material with a heightened effect. Selecting studio portraits from the post-Reconstruction era of the 1890s to the 1920s, Lovell dwells on a historical moment that also went missing in the sense that the private spaces left behind by the Great Migration only recently came into the historiography. Whereas the archive documented in Deborah Willis’s History of African American Photography (2000) is a valuable source of factual evidence, the realist approach to indexical truth is undermined by Lovell’s drawing, which translates objects from lost to found, as it were, by virtue of the emphasis on the aura of actuality that stains the residual trace. The anonymity of Lovell’s figures is crucial to the African American context because, like Christian Boltanski’s memorialization of the Shoah, it suggests that an image of the disappeared can merely cover over an emotional hole – a little bit of nothingness that absorbs and abates the otherwise overwhelming experience of loss.

Where the material residua of a formerly slave-owning society have only recently entered the public acknowledgement of official museums, Lovell’s explorations cut through the sentimental humanism that serves as a psychic defence against a past that refuses to be laid to rest. His work underlines the view that for Diaspora artists’ necrophilia’ has been a major imaginative resource, as filmmaker John Akomfrah suggested when he evoked James van der Zee’s 1940s funeral and mortuary portraits as ‘an act of feeding off the dead’. Creating a place at the table for the absent ones, Lovell welcomes them into the shelter of his unhomely tableaux.