About ten years ago American Legacy featured an artist named Whitfield Lovell in an article titled “Whispers from the Walls.” The Bronx-born Lovell, whose three-dimensional tableaux—life-size charcoal portraits on pine board, punctuated with everyday (and not so everyday) objects found in flea markets and antique malls, tel the life stories of ancestors, family, and once anonymous individuals from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The genesis of Lovell’s freestanding tableaux are installations in which he worked from the walls out, creating theatrical spaces by playing on the historical significance of the buildings he inhabited—a nineteenth century slave trader’s mansion in Italy; the former barracks of a sixteenth century fort in Havana, Cuba; an abandoned 1930s row house in Houston, Texas. In a new exhibition opening at the Hunter Museum of Art, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Lovell will continues his exploration of history and place, this time using objects from Chattanooga that track the lives of African-Americans in the South after the Civil War, touching on universal themes of “passage, freedom, memory, stereotypes, and issues of identity.” Included in the exhibition will be Lovell’s “Kin Series,” an ongoing project that began in 2008. Each of the mixed media pieces feature a portrait along with a single object, creating open-ended narratives ripe for the viewer’s interpretation.
The 2007 MacArthur Fellowship winner attended Cooper Union in New York City, graduating with a bachelor of fine arts in 1981. In his early days, charcoal and oil stick were his preferred medium for large-scale drawings, mostly done from old family photos. In time Lovell moved from paper to old wood, scouring his library of hundreds of images of African-Americans—strangers—choosing one to render on just the right piece of board—with the right grain, some patches of worn paint, or remnants of wallpaper. Then he added the objects—old buckets, iron keys, barbed wires, antique baby dolls—to create tableaux that examined issues such as identity and gender; love and loss; the passage of time. “Whispers from the Walls” was Lovell’s fourth on-site installation at the University of North Texas art gallery, where, in 1999, he created a house filled with personal items, household objects, furniture, and sound. He drew life-size figures on the walls, “residents” of the house.
Lovell’s work will be on view starting May 18 through October 13, 2013, at the Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga, Tennessee. For more information please call (423) 267-0968, or visit www.huntermuseum.org
At top: Kin XXIV (Cross the River, Round the Bend), 2008 ©Whitfield Lovell