“Whitfield Lovell”, UTNE

Whitfield Lovell


by Joseph Hart, Utne

In 1993 Whitfield Lovell sought respite from New York City at an artist’s retreat in an old Italian villa. But when he arrived, Lovell, an African American, was horrified to discover grotesque caricatures of black men and women decorating the building’s interior. Turns out the villa had been built by a prominent Italian slave trader with unusual tastes. Taking a personal and artistic risk, he began expressing his reaction in charcoal directly on the villa’s walls.

Whispers from the Walls, Lovell’s homage to ancestral power.

Since then, in half a dozen installation projects and many “tableaux” he constructs from wood and found objects, Lovell has continued to explore the themes of history and ancestral power. Using charcoal on the bare surfaces of pine boards, Lovell makes realistic drawings of old photographs—portraits from the 1920s and 1930s of black men and women stiffly posed and formally dressed. Then he adds artifacts his subjects might have used. In “Whispers from the Walls,” a full-gallery installation commissioned by the University of North Texas in Denton, Lovell built an entire shack, peopled with his ghostly ancestor drawings.

The effect of these constructions is strangely raw and disorienting, in part because Lovell’s art combines seemingly contradictory impulses: Drawing on a wall suggests graffiti—but his portraits are tender and ghostly. His subject is the enduring legacy of slavery, but his charcoal medium is ephemeral. Equally influenced by folk art traditions and his formal art-school training, Lovell’s work is on the cool cutting edge of the art world, where installation work and the use of ephemeral media are marks of sophistication, but it is also nakedly emotional in its exploration of the black American experience. “Whispers from the Walls” will travel to Virginia, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina, Los Angeles, and Oregon in 2003.