African-Americans of Days Past Speak from the Pine Boards of Whitfield Lovell’s Three Dimensional Tableaux
By Audrey Peterson
When fist viewing a portrait by Whitfield Lovell, you feel you are looking at someone familiar. His men, women, and children, all of them ordinary black people from the period after Reconstruction and before the civil right era, haunt you with their calm self-possession. Some appear well-to-do; others look poor, tired, sad. But there is always an intelligence in their eyes that says they control their own destinies, even if only for this moment.
Lovell is certain that his father, Allister a West Indian postal worker and part-time photographer, helped to shape his vision as an artist during his childhood in the Bronx in the 1960s. “Ever since I can remember, he was taking pictures of us. He even had a darkroom in the apartment.” Lovell became interested in drawing when he was 13. In 1981 he graduated from the Cooper Union school, in New York City. “After college, I started out doing these large oils of my family,” he recalls. Then in 1984 tragedy visited the family: His grandfather was shot and killed during a mugging, and that changed everything.
Trying to understand his own loss, he started to work from photos of and newspaper clippings about bereaved people. He abandoned painting in oil and began using pastel on paper.
Then he had an idea. It was born, he says, when “I participated in show in 1993 at the Villa Val Lemme, in Italy. The nineteenth-century house had belonged to a slave trader.” As a tribute to the man’s chattels, Lovell drew the faces and hands of what he calls “phantom slaves” directly on the walls. “On the ceilings were these terrible grotesques of Africans that the trader had commissioned,” he says. “They really made me think about how blacks have been shown in the past, and how I wanted to show them. The experience also left me wanting to go on location again.”
A chance to do just that came in 1995 when has was asked to be in a group show at Project Row Houses – a ongoing project in the traditionally black Third Ward of Houston, Texas. Lovell peopled his space with family portraits, but he left old wallpaper that had been peeled off before the show sitting on the floor, and leaned discarded boards against the walls near his drawings. These were the first of the three-dimensional works he would describe as “tableaux.” With Whispers From the Walls, a solo show at the University of North Texas, in Denton, he brought to full fruition the combined use of drawing and artifact. He built a one-room cabin of weathered boards and shingles, decorated the inside with drawings of people and furniture from the era, and filled the space with the recorded sound of murmuring voices.
Seen close-up, the worn pine boards of Lovell’s tableaux resonate with the spirit of times gone by. When he has chosen a board he begins to draw a life size copy of one of the hundreds of antique photographs in his collection. Although his medium is always charcoal on pine, the process for making a particular tableau varies. “Sometimes I see an object and think it would be great married to a particular image. And sometimes I dream up the entire piece and go hunting for the photograph and the objects.” He uses skillets, shaving brushes, oil lamps, a huge iron pot. As with the boards, the more worn the objects are, the better. He considers them signs of life.
His lesson to the viewer is that no matter how anonymous the people in his pictures seem, they are closer to you than you think.
“Someone I know was visiting a friend in New York City and saw an image on his friend’s mantelpiece almost identical to one I had used a few times. I had gotten my image from Houston. It was of the friend’s grandfather,” says Lovell. “That was beautiful, that moment of recognition.”