“Prestidigtations & Permutations,” New Orleans Art Review

Prestidigitations & Permutations

By Karl F. Volkmar

Whitfield Lovell: Cada Dia, 2004. Charcoal on wood, 46” high.

In one of the more curious moments in nineteenth century Europe’s fascination with spiritual phenomena and the occult, Alphonse Louis Constant, under the pen name Eliphas Levi, wrote books on the history and practice of transcendental magic in one of which he explains how to communicate with the deceased. After first warning that this should not be done for trivial reason or out of simple curiosity, Levi instructs the initiate to gather together a veiled portrait and relevant artifacts, and share food and conversation as if the deceased were present.

In the work of Whitfield Lovell, the artist conjures images of the deceased with charcoal and conte crayon drawings on weathered wood combined with various found objects. Exuding an aura of time passed that may remind one of rummaging through an attic in an old house or barn, Lovell’s drawings, which are based on antique photographs, with their suggestive, deliberately imprecise titles kindle associations with earlier generations. These portraits of men and women hovering in their ambiguous spaces, presented singly and in pairs, evoke associations with a underworld inhabited by the shades of departed souls.

Ancestor portraits have a rich history that arose among the Paleolithic roots of homo sapiens. From the more recent Neolithic, the plastered skull from Jericho speaks to one of reverence for those have gone before. Maori ancestor spirits inhabiting community meeting houses known as warenui participate in important decision-making in a communion of past and present. Modern photographs, like Republican Roman portrait busts as artifact and evidence reflection on which brings ancestors into present tense, Lovell’s figures wait patiently, waiting to hear what questions a viewer might ask.

What questions would we ask? Who are these individuals? What were their lives like? What did they do for their livelihoods? Did they have children and, if so, how many, and what happened to them? What made them laugh? What made them sigh? What made them weep? Would they respond? What lessons do they have to teach the living? These are the some of the questions one might ask these men and women who look at us with measured gaze.

In order to discover what these men and women might have to say, I invited a colleague from Massachusetts, dance teaching artist Erica Sigal, to meet Lovell’s characters. As a dancer and teacher Sigal brings a highly developed intuitive understanding of bodies and movement and nonverbal communication to the art of interpretation that would be invaluable to understanding what Lovell’s men and women might have to say. As we moved from work to work, she listened attentively to those who seemed to speak to her most clearly. What she experienced is transcribed below:

 I was first attracted to Ansermar. Two figures are drawn with charcoal on a large wooden panel made of naturally aged and stained planks cut from what appeared to he the wall of an old building. Before I could approach the figures more closely a seemingly haphazard array of single planks propped against the main panel distracted my attention by their vicarious angles and edges. Then, as my eyes began to wander among this seemingly casual arrangement, my attention was drawn into the ambiguous space where the man and the woman waited quietly. My eyes continued to follow their bodies upwards. The panel with its gabled top edge was like a miniature house like those one sees in medieval illuminated manuscript paintings. Indeed the contrast between the active foreground and static plane of the panel drew attention to the assured drawing of the prim and proper figures as difference yielded to the pleasing and restful earth tones that infuses the work as a whole. The apparent random arrangement and dilapidated condition of the weathered wood directed my attention to the couple watching and waiting as if to catch my eye as if I were strolling along the sidewalks of a small town, greeting neighbors as they sat on their front porches after the evening meal.

 The prim and properly dressed, according to the standards of the late nineteenth century, couple consists of a middle-aged man seated in a woven wicker chair, his left hand holding what may be a straw boater hat and resting on his knee and a woman standing beside him. It seems curious to me that the woman is dutifully standing as if prepared to attend to the man’s needs rather than her own. What were they doing that day when they halted to pose for the photographer? Relaxing after going to church? If we were walking along a residential sidewalk of a small town, everyone would know everyone else s business and no one would have to ask. Comfortable, even casual, in their non-confrontational poses, they could be exemplars representing a slice of upper middle class life a la The Ladies of the Club. Perhaps it is they who are watching us with guarded gaze, wondering who are these strangers and what are they about? They continued their silent watching we passed by.

As we turned away from our meeting with Ansemar and considered whom to visit next, I began to think about the weathered wood panels in the context of the symbolism of trees and time in world cultures. How might Lovell have incorporated such associations into his work? The wood speaks to us of the trees from which the lumber was cut, the grain of growth marking the passage of time like generations evolving outwards and upwards from the center, the knots expressing the dynamic energy of erupting growth, the traces of the history of the tree whose wood forms the houses that shelter the generations of the family tree. On this allegorical ground the artist has traced images of men and women that seems to emerge from and dissolve into an amorphous space akin to the dream time of the Australian Aborigines and the Navaho pool of time. Indeed the very notion of traditional wisdom elides the notion/fact of linear time, of nature and of nurture, of a truth whose value transcends the limitations of circumstances.

We passed by several works before pausing in front of Patience for our next visit. As my colleague began, I wrote down what she said:

Patience is a larger than life, knee-length portrait of a young adult woman wearing a high-collared blouse, jacket, and skirt with a bustle rises above an old-fashioned wooden radio resting on a short plank at the base of the vertical panel. It is curious that the bustle, a fashion that ended by the late nineteenth century, should be juxtaposed with a radio that that came into use afterwards. Her quietly intense expression is neither happy nor sad and she seems to have paused just long enough for the source photograph to be taken before continuing on with important work. Intense formal relationships unite radio and woman in an ongoing conversation of shapes and lines and forms. They communicate with each other with an eloquence made more so in their silence. The curving form of the radio case echoes the curves and inverse curves of the woman, her eyes and brows, the top of her head, breasts, and shoulders. The diagonals mirror her shoulders, hips, and head, the vertical mullions the folds of her skirt. The three knobs of the radio are iterated in the two dark knots in the panel on either side of her head, the center knob the shape of her mouth. The radio mirrors the torso from shoulder to waist. Rich, warm earth tones in the medium value range of sepia photographs suffuse the whole miming the patina of age.

Intuitively following Levi’s dictum to use objects associated with the deceased with whom one wishes to converse, Lovell includes various artifacts, each with its own history and role in the lives of those who used them, and which await decoding by the aesthetic ethnographer. The 1999 works includes full length figures on large seven by eight feet plus painted or stained wood grounds with boxes (Workings), corroded cookware (Still), stands with potted plants like one might find in a funeral home (My Sin), old boards (Ansemar), banister posts (Eight Rock), and an old wooden ladder (Canaan) in front. The works from 2004 include partial figures on plain boards with single objects (radio, chair, drum, rifle). In the 2006 and 2008 works, Lovell includes objects such as an unpainted sideboard, enamel cups, silver sets and ware, and radios. The artist’s precise spacing of these various objects creates intervals as significant as the things in themselves, and which contrast with the ephemeral presence of the figures. Lovell’s apparitions, existing in their indeterminate, are as elusive as Mu Chi’s Six Persimmons or a hatsuboku landscape by Sesshu, yet are just as assuredly something even if not of tangible substance. The artist’s careful juxtaposition of form and interval is as poignant as the sound of a single note whose duration serves to emphasize the tangible quality of the ephemeral. If persistence of vision accounts for the simulation of continuous movement in film perhaps one might posit a persistence of artifact and interval as that which makes Lovell’s figures seem alive.

As I was musing on the above, we had moved away from Patience and were now standing in front of Cada Dia to which we now turned our attention:

The young man wears a large, wide-brimmed hat and coat with fur collar. The formal dialogue between woman and radio in Patience is iterated in that between the man and the chair positioned in front of the panel. The arcs of chair arms and back are mimicked in the shoulders and wide brimmed hat. The roundness of shapes stained into the panel from cans left standing on the floor mirror those of face, head, and hands. The empty chair mirrors the emptiness in the young man’s eyes. His serious expression, as if he were on his way somewhere, seems interrupted in mid-action, and is enigmatic in that there is scarcely any hint of what he was doing or what he does for a living. Yet he wears a macho hat in the style of the Boss of the Plains created by Stetson. Is this merely a chance coincidence or might the macho hat and the title, Spanish for “each day, ” indicate that he may have been living and working in the American West? The assertive pose generates the space in which he exists as if saying “I make my own way.”

Deuce, from 2008, represents a middle class, twenty-something African American couple whose superficial poses mask an uneasiness. What does the title deuce allude to: the number two in gambling with dice, a pair or two of anything, the element of chance? They appear to be economically comfortable, well dressed, the man wearing a coat of fine fabric and a tie, the woman a sailor collar top. Yet the woman’s face, blank, quietly serious, with a pleading look in her eyes, looks out at us with a mixture of sadness, of resignation. The man stares into space. The two are not communicating. What were their lives really like?

Life seems to be going well, at least in terms of material conditions: an a la mode high-backed chair, a silver tea set resting on lace covered shelf, the tray dysfunctionally attached to the panel in upper right. Do the curvilinear forms of the objects that echo the shapes of figures, the continuation of the arabesque of the handle of the teapot along the curve of the man s right arm, do they imply that he too is an object?

 A heart-like sugar bowl is suspended close to the man’s heart, an empty bowl, meant to echo the man’s empty expression? Are the woman’s eyes pleading from the empty feeling in her heart? Yes, they seem comfortable in material terms, successful, but is theirs a loving relationship between a man and a woman?

What have we learned from our visits with these shades from the past? Their voices seem silent to we who watch and wait attentively. It is we who must eke out meaning from the quiet dialog between shadows, surfaces, and artifacts. Are their messages like those of Hegeso or Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi the meanings of whose mute testimony are self evident? The things of this world, this everyday world, may have been of value to Shih Huang Di and Mycerinus, but they are of no value to one who lives in a world of shadows and memories. The one known as Koheleth has written of this matter so eloquently. Yet it is those same things with which one seems to be most concerned while alive for the nature of existence is to be. It is as if Lovell’s characters are saying “We have lived our lives. All that remains are photographic memories, and the things around which we lived our lives. Now you will have to live your lives as we did, each on your own.”