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.
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.
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.
Whitfield Lovell is an inveterate scavenger and collector. He seems to be a born taxonomist, a close examiner and evaluator of material culture. In this respect he has always been comfortable with the play of time, both private and historical.